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Monday, November 06, 2006

Changing the RCMP, apologizing to Maher Arar

Years ago, when I was a reporter for a daily newspaper in the
interior of BC, I was sent to investigate concerns of RCMP inaction
in a small village.
A group of Sikh treeplanters camped in the town had been subjected to repeated harrassment by a band of young people who were burning rubber and shouting racialslurs at the group.
After several complaints to RCMP went unheeded, one of the crew bosses pulled out a rifle and fired shots in the air to warn off the offenders. This finally brought the police out, who charged the crew boss with unlawful discharge of a firearm.
As a result of this charge, several local people expressed concern with
the way the police handled the situation. They believed police mismanaged the original complaints about the people causing the problem, and were concerned how the police responded to their complaints, by ticketing complaintants for parking on the wrong side of the street, a common practise in the village. Citizens also expressed concern about the frequent turn-over of police officers in the village, because of an RCMP policy that cycled officers out of the detachment every few years, and the appearance of special treatment towards persons who were related to the police and village big-wigs.
I took thier concerns to the local RCMP for comment, who responded with a rather smug, "no comment."
Shortly after the story was published I received a call from the district commander of the RCMP. He was upset with the nature of my article, the criticisms it contained, and wanted an opportuity to explain the RCMP's position.
We arranged a feature length article and interview with the officer, on RCMP practices and procedures, and their position on the particular case.
However, before we could do the interview, I received a phone call from the district commander's direct superior. He was coarse and unrelenting, even threatening, telling me I would never be allowed to interview any member of the RCMP at any time! He went so far as to speak to my editor in an attempt to have me dismissed.
I tell this story because nothing has changed. There is a culture of self-preservation and protection at the RCMP. Sometimes it is more important for them to protect one another than it is to protect the people they are charged to protect.
This is not unusual. Police forces everywhere culture an atmosphere wherein they are more like a brotherhood, or secret society, than a public service agancy.
To their credit, members of the RCMP take good care of one another, however, this same code of ethics becomes exclusionary for people not directly associated with the police or in high community postitions.
Resignations and firings at the top of the RCMP will not change this
situation. The discharged will only be replaced by other officers who have been trained to abide by the same ethics that led to the smearing of Maher Arar.
We need a complete overhaul of how the RCMP does business, and how they are governed. If ever there was a strong argument for the implementation of a civilian watchdog, with real teeth, to oversee the RCMP, than the Arar case is it. Clearly the RCMP made a mistake, which is forgiveable. What is unforgiveable is how they tried to cover it up by lying and violating Arar's rights.
The Arar case is not unusual. Many people have had serious issues with RCMP practises. One fellow I know, who has never had a charge against him, complained to the RCMP about activities of certain officers involved in a drug investigation.
Sometime later this same fellow applied for his RCMP file under the freedom of information act. He received over 100 pages, most of them blacked out. The file showed the RCMP had actually sent in undercover officers to investigate the man. It always struck me as strange the RCMP would have such a large file on a man whose only apparent indiscretion was to complain about police behaviour.
Heads should roll, from the commissioner in a straight line to whoever was responsible for slandering Arar, but the bigger job should be to totally revamp the RCMP, particularly where it concerns their response to criticism and complaints against the force or its members.
Finally, the current goverment's action, of blaming the previous government, and deflecting responsibility for Arar's incarceration and torture to the United States, is appalling. Mr. Harper, and others in his party, were quick to condemn Arar based on the circumstantial evidence. As opposition and as government, they contributed to the assault on Arar's liberty, and it is incumbent on them to set the matter right by making a full apology and compensation to Arar and his family, without further delay.


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