OTTAWA -- The head of the RCMP public complaints commission says the national police service often ignores her, refuses to give her the information she needs to do her job, and in one case dragged out an internal investigation for three years to try to conceal improper conduct by an officer.
In the last instance, the Mounties refused to produce a document showing that an RCMP sergeant in British Columbia deliberately leaked information suggesting that an outspoken political activist was under criminal investigation, says Shirley Heafey, the chairwoman of the complaints commission.
In a candid report that, in effect, describes her panel as a public watchdog that has been chained, blindfolded and defanged. Heafey said this lack of police accountability is dangerous in a democracy, putting the rights of citizens at risk.
She said Parliament has given her a broad mandate to investigate complaints, but has not given her the authority to force the police to release documents or to make officers available for questioning.
“putting the rights of citizens at risk”
"As a matter of policy, the RCMP should not be independent. The notion that the armed representatives of the state should be vested with extraordinary powers and then regarded as entirely independent is a notion inconsistent with democratic principles and the rule of law," she said in the 100-page report. Asked whether she feels the government is using the complaints commission as "window dressing" to conceal a lack of police accountability, Ms. Heafey said in an interview, "Yes, I sometimes feel we've been used in that way."
In parliamentary debates, Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan and other ministers regularly deflect questions about RCMP activities by telling opposition members of Parliament that if they have a complaint they should take it to Ms. Heafey's panel.
In fact, the federal RCMP Act says the force operates under the "direction" of the public safety minister, Shirley Heafey (right) noted in a section of her report that laments what she says is a lack of understanding by MPs and others of how the system of accountability works and what role is played by the complaints commission.
Even some of the most senior officers in the RCMP seem to be ignorant of the commission's responsibilities and treat the body like a bunch of "outsiders," Ms. Heafey said.
She cited the recent assertion by RCMP Deputy Commissioner Garry Loeppky that some material could not be turned over to the complaints commission because it was classified as top secret and Ms. Heafey needed a security clearance and safe storage areas for confidential documents.
In fact, Shirley Heafey, a lawyer, has top-secret clearance -- she is a former chief investigator of national security complaints for the Security Intelligence Review Committee -- and all of the safes and secure storage facilities at the commission's offices meet RCMP standards.
Ms. Heafey said her complaints commission should have the power to compel testimony and require the release of documents in the course of an investigation and to conduct performance audits of the RCMP.
The Mounties are usually co-operative only in routine "benign" cases, such as complaints about excessive use of force during an arrest, she said. In a complaint from the B.C. political activist that she had been maligned, Ms. Heafey said the RCMP fought disclosure of an internal e-mail message in which the sergeant admitted the deliberate leak. "No justifiable reason could support the RCMP's decision to withhold this highly relevant information," Ms. Heafey said.
Canada needs a brand-new watchdog powerful enough to make the Mounties and spy agencies answerable to the public, says the head of the RCMP's complaints commission.
In the wake of the Maher Arar affair, action must be taken to compel co-operation from investigators in national security cases, Shirley Heafey said in a report released yesterday.
Lack of co-operation from the RCMP has prevented her from doing her job in several investigations, Heafey said in a submission to the Arar commission.
As a first step in the overhaul of the watchdog system, Heafey wants the powers of her own agency - the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP - beefed up.
In a damning report, she criticizes the RCMP for withholding information from the civilian review agency in an effort to cover up wrongdoing.
She cited her frustration at not having the authority to compel co-operation from the Mounties. She said she should be able to decide what information is relevant, compel testimony and require the production of documents.
Her report points to various cases where her agency was unable to conduct a proper investigation because of lack of disclosure by the RCMP.
A 1999 probe into the RCMP's conduct during an altercation over fishing rights in Miramichi Bay, N.B.
A current investigation following a woman's allegation of being singled out for a terrorism case because her family is Arab.
"There is little doubt that there are significant gaps in the existing system of review of RCMP activities, which means that, at this moment, the government cannot ensure that misconduct within the RCMP is being effectively monitored," Heafey wrote in the report released yesterday.
But her report goes beyond offering recommendations on how to fix the problems her agency experiences when investigating the RCMP.
It suggests the creation of a central agency called the "National Security Review Commission," with the power to conduct investigations of all federal agencies involved in security and terrorism cases.
"The existing patchwork approach to civilian review of national security activities poses significant risks for rights and freedoms, since these are the principles that may be compromised when national security activities are permitted to go unchecked," she wrote.
"The increasing occurrence of national security activities - a reality with which we live in Canada in 2005 - warrants the establishment of a potent review body that can peer behind the cloak of secrecy to reassure the rest of us that things are working as they should."
There are more than a dozen agencies that are involved in security cases, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS); the Department of National Defence; Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada; and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).
Both CSIS and CSE are independently reviewed, similar to the RCMP. Heafey's proposal for a national review agency, consisting of only three full-time members, suggests these review committees should report to the central agency, which would also have the ability to oversee other federal agencies.
Heafey's report was submitted to the federal inquiry probing the involvement of Canadian officials in the deportation and detention of Arar, 34.
There are two parts to the inquiry - the hearings to determine what happened to Arar (which are being held behind closed doors until May) and a policy review to recommend models for an arm's-length review mechanism for the RCMP.
Arar was detained at New York's JFK airport as a terrorism suspect on Sept. 26, 2002 and held for two weeks before being deported to Syria as part of a controversial U.S. practice known as extraordinary rendition.
In December, an official of the U.S. State Department wrote in a letter to an American congressman that Arar was on a terrorist watch list because of information received from Canada.
The RCMP's role in security investigations was greatly diminished with the creation of the Canada's spy service 20 years ago.
But after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Criminal Code was amended to include terrorism charges, allowing the RCMP to begin investigating terrorist activity in Canada again and leading to the creation of RCMP-led anti-terrorism units. One of these units reportedly investigated Arar.
Heafey said in an interview yesterday that to effectively monitor the RCMP, her agency - and not the RCMP - has to be granted the ability to decide what evidence is relevant, and must be able to conduct independent audits rather than just respond to complaints.
"Information is the lifeblood of an effective public complaint process," she wrote.
"Without it, the (Commission for Public Complaints) cannot do the job entrusted to it by Parliament. The difficulty of accessing information is one of the main stumbling blocks to the effectiveness of the current review system."
The RCMP would not comment yesterday on Heafey's report, but the RCMP's submission to the Arar inquiry notes the review agency has the power to call an inquiry and summon any evidence required.
The RCMP submission also suggests the courts and federal ministers already provide adequate monitoring of the force's actions.
"The fact is that all national security-related investigations are undertaken with the objective of criminal prosecution. While it is true that some investigations do not end in a prosecution, it is impossible for an investigator to know, during an investigation, whether or not his or her actions will later be scrutinized by a court," the RCMP submission states.
"The demands on RCMP personnel to meet the requests of additional review processes may adversely impact the benefits from having those investigators working to prevent terrorism, potentially causing investigational effectiveness to crumble under the weight of review."
Liberal MP Derek Lee, chairman of an interim parliamentary committee that just finished a study of how national security is reviewed, said the government should ignore Heafey's recommendation for new national watchdog agency.
Lee (Scarborough-Rouge River) blasted Heafey's recommendations as "too simplistic" and an example of the kind of "empire-building" that is going on as Ottawa tries to adjust its intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorism operations in the post-9/11 era.
"She's essentially saying we need something else here to take a look at all of this stuff. While it's well-intentioned, I don't think the bald statement that we need something else here is good enough to fly with."
Lee says a more effective and less expensive way to review security operations, and make sure government agents do not break the law or violate civil liberties, is to create a stronger parliamentary oversight body that can demand information from security agencies, in confidence, without endangering operations.
"We have to avoid turning oversight into an industry and putting obstacles in the way of good efficient security functions," said Lee. "You can overdo it. What we don't need is another institution, another layer and another hodge-podge of oversight.
"I think the Commission for Public Complaints should stick to its knitting, and I say that publicly, and I hope it's heard.
"I think they do a reasonable job of that, but they should not be making pretensions at being a civilian oversight or a civilian review or a civilian management body for the RCMP. It's just not going to happen."
Lee said Prime Minister Paul Martin has already publicly said he wants to increase parliamentary accountability for national security activities.
The interim committee on national security submitted confidential recommendations to Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan and expects a formal response before the end of March to proposals on how a more permanent committee should work.
Heafey said yesterday she too supports stronger parliamentary powers but said this cannot replace a new review body that could look at all federal departments.