Tonda MacCharles, Ottawa (Toronto Star) – The Conservatives, heeding calls for more civilian oversight of the RCMP, will create a new independent watchdog agency with broader powers to investigate and review complaints against the Mounties.
The surprise announcement came in the details of the federal budget, but Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did not refer to it in his speech to the Commons.
It is a significant policy change, but one that came with few immediate details about just how independent the new agency would be.
For example, it is not clear whether it would have power to review the RCMP’s post-9/11 expansion into national security and counter-terrorism investigations, or whether review of such secret investigations would be handed over to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the agency that now monitors the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, as Liberal senators recently urged.
The federal government announced more money for CSIS in Thursday’s budget—$28 million over the next two years “to ensure its effective operation in the current global environment, which remains volatile and complex.” CSIS currently receives $496.3 million.
It’s unclear whether the new money would go to expanding the foreign spying activities of CSIS, after the government decided not to create a new agency like the CIA to spy abroad.
The new RCMP watchdog agency will replace and broaden the role now played by the Commission of Public Complaints Against the RCMP (CPC).
It will get a significant infusion of federal cash too.
The current agency has an annual budget of about $5.18 million. The federal budget says the new agency will keep its base, see a $3-million increase next year, and another $2-million increase the year after that, for a total annual budget of just more than $10 million in the fiscal year 2011/12.
The current watchdog agency acted largely on public complaints, although it had – under past chair Paul Kennedy – examined RCMP policies such as its growing use of Taser stun guns. (Those activities had won a temporary funding increase of $3.4 million, which was drawn down and not restored last year).
Kennedy and predecessor Shirley Heafey had long complained the agency was subject to the RCMP’s willingness to cooperate with investigations. And Kennedy had said that the agency’s $5-million budget was no match for a national police force that had a $4-billion budget.
The CPC has no independent powers to audit the RCMP’s activities, or any power to compel the submission of documents and witnesses in order to effectively probe the Mounties.
A government official said legislation would be introduced to define the new watchdog’s role.
“This is a component of the RCMP’s transformation,” she said.
Until now, successive Conservative public safety ministers insisted the government wanted to await the long-delayed report of former Supreme Court of Canada justice John Major’s inquiry into the events around the 1985 Air India crash.
The budget said it comes in response to concerns expressed by the public, provinces and territories, parliamentary committees and several major reports, including the 2007 Brown Task Force and the O’Connor Commission of Inquiry into the Maher Arar rendition and torture affair.
The move may go some distance toward quelling criticism after the Conservatives refused to renew Paul Kennedy’s contract and replaced him with Toronto lawyer Ian McPhail, who had no criminal law or policing background.
The federal budget also provides $14 million over two years to boost the capacity of the National DNA bank to process forensic evidence, and it announced it will “explore” the privatization of the RCMP’s forensic laboratory services.