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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Watchdog to put RCMP under tighter scrutiny

June 15, 2010
By Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News Service

The Harper government has acted on a long-standing promise to create a new and more powerful independent watchdog to keep an eye on the RCMP.

The new complaints body would replace the existing Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, which has been repeatedly decried as toothless because it depends on the force's voluntary cooperation for investigations.

The civilian oversight mechanism will have authority to subpoena documents and compel witnesses to surrender information for investigations and hearings.

"This commission would have significantly enhanced investigative powers over the existing body," said federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who introduced a bill Monday to create the new Royal Canadian Mounted Police Review and Complaints Commission.

The new oversight body would also be empowered to conduct policy reviews.

The government has promised the new review body for years, but it has said it is awaiting the report from a public inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing.

The report, which is expected to advocate change to the country's security and intelligence operations, will be released Thursday.

Critics have highlighted the case of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died after he was Tasered by RCMP officers at the Vancouver International Airport, as a reason that stronger RCMP oversight is needed.

The Mounties have been under intense public scrutiny in recent years, arising from their use of Taser stun guns, their involvement in the Maher Arar affair, and a pension scandal that rocked the force's upper echelons.

In the 2010-11 federal budget, tabled in March, the government set aside $8 million over two years for the new oversight mechanism.

Paul Kennedy, the former head of the RCMP public complaints commission, has said that a stronger review body should have access to all RCMP files and be empowered to subpoena documents and compel people to testify. "This appears in principle to be going in the right direction," Kennedy said Monday. "The big problem was our access to information."

Canada's new civilian watchdog of the RCMP, Ian McPhail, has also called for enhanced oversight powers to help eliminate the RCMP's "credibility challenge."

In December 2006, Justice Dennis O'Connor -- who led the inquiry into Arar's deportation to Syria from the United States, after the RCMP passed on faulty intelligence to the Americans -- recommended that the complaints commission be renamed and given power to review all RCMP national security activities. Arar, a Syrian-Canadian, was put on a plane and sent to Damascus after being arrested during a stopover at a New York airport.

Sgt. Greg Cox, spokesman for the RCMP, said the proposed changes "will strengthen public confidence and trust, and contribute to the modernization of the force."

McPhail, the interim chair of the RCMP complaints commission, said he welcomes the bill and he said he will review the document before commenting "at an appropriate time and venue."

The new review body follows an announcement in February that the Mounties would no longer investigate themselves in cases involving severe injury or death of suspects. The bill also enshrines that policy into law.

The RCMP, under the proposed law, would refer such files to outside forces or provincial bodies responsible for investigating police incidents, which exist in Ontario and Alberta. A special investigation unit also is being established in Manitoba.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen called on the government to establish a national special investigations unit to probe cases involving injury or death of suspects.

"This is a bigger watchdog that still has no teeth," said Cullen.

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