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Monday, January 25, 2010

Ottawa names interim RCMP watchdog - Lack of experience with Mounties raises skepticism of estate lawyer with ties to Tories

January 25, 2010
Colin Freeze, Globe and Mail

The new man in charge of holding the Mounties to account is a Toronto estate lawyer who describes himself as “collegial.” But his predecessors question whether a “neophyte” with that mindset is up to the job.

Ian McPhail, who has spent most of his career focusing on wills and real estate, acknowledges he has much to learn about the RCMP. While he has worked as a Conservative organizer and chaired Ontario government bodies, he has never before tried to police the police.

“Look, you probably know more about the background there than I do,” Mr. McPhail said in an interview last week. “I'm going up Monday, it will be my first day on the job.”

The federal government appointed him last week as “interim chair” of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. He is to hold the job for at least a year.

This appointment raised eyebrows, given that Mr. McPhail has no background in policing, criminal law or in federal oversight agencies. Past chairs – even ones with long histories in security and oversight – have left the job in abject frustration. They've complained that Parliament's laws render them toothless watchdogs, allowing the Mounties to remain a stubborn culture unto themselves.

The RCMP Complaints Commission consists of a group of 90 civil servants who try to keep tabs on a sprawling police service with some 30,000 members across Canada. The office has lately hammered home some chronic issues – including the RCMP's use of tasers.

Mr. McPhail, who started his Toronto estate-law firm 37 years ago, said no one need be unduly concerned about his lack of background in police issues. “There's perhaps a misunderstanding in the role of the chairman, which is not to be expert in those fields,” he said. “But rather to understand how an administrative agency should operate.”

His predecessors wish him well, but question his description of the job and his credentials Criminal law “isn't something you pick up on the fly,” Paul Kennedy, whose term finished in December, said in an interview. “If you don't know the law, I don't know what value you can bring to the job.”

Mr. Kennedy spent 35 years inside the federal security agencies before becoming the Mounties' watchdog in 2005. He issued some scathing reports until the Conservatives opted to not renew him last fall.

Mr. Kennedy is to appear on Parliament Hill tomorrow as part of a forum organized by the Liberal party. He'll be joined by other federal watchdogs whose terms have not been renewed.

Shirley Heafey, the RCMP Complaints Commissioner from 1997 to 2005, spent two years inside the agency as a vice-chair before taking the helm. Prior to that, she worked for the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the oversight body of CSIS, Canada's spy agency.

Asked about Mr. McPhail's appointment, she said the Mounties “are going to love to have him there.”

“He's just a caretaker. There's no power to do anything unless you really push the envelope,” she said. “He's coming in cold. There's no way he can do anything in a year … he's a complete neophyte.”

The two previous complaints commissioners had been appointed to the job by Liberals. While Ms. Heafey said she had once dabbled in Liberal politics, Mr. Kennedy described himself as non-partisan.

“And that's the way it should be,” he said.

Mr. McPhail said he has been active in Conservative riding associations in Toronto since the 1970s. The provincial government of premier Mike Harris appointed him chair of TVO for one year in the 1990s. He was later put in charge of the province's environmental-review board and its alcohol and gaming commission.

Past RCMP watchdogs have publicly agitated for change, complaining the Mounties ignore recommendations otherwise.

But Mr. McPhail said he isn't greatly concerned by that. “I don't know a lot about their style,” he said. “I just know about my style. My style tends to be collegial.”

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