Chairperson’s Opening Remarks to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia’s Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act

Ottawa - 2021-02-22

Opening Remarks
Michelaine Lahaie, Chairperson
Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP

Check Against Delivery

Good morning.

I am speaking to you from Ottawa, and would like to begin by acknowledging that this land is the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabeg People. Thank you for the invitation to present to the Committee today.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak about the role of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP in providing civilian oversight of the RCMP in the province of British Columbia.

As Chairperson of the CRCC, I firmly believe that independent civilian review is an essential aspect of maintaining public trust in the police. The confidence of the public is essential—without it, police services lack legitimacy and effectiveness.

The CRCC was established by Parliament in 1988. It is an independent federal agency, separate and distinct from the RCMP. Our mandate is to:

  • receive complaints from the public about the conduct of  members;
  • conduct reviews when members of the public are not satisfied with the RCMP's handling of their complaints;
  • initiate complaints and investigations into member conduct when it is in the public interest to do so;
  • report findings and make recommendations; and
  • promote public awareness of the complaint process.

It is important to note that as an independent body, the CRCC does not advocate for the individual or for the RCMP member. Our role is to ensure that RCMP members conduct themselves within the law and policies.

In 2014, the CRCC's mandate expanded beyond complaints to include systemic reviews for the purpose of ensuring that the activities of the RCMP—that is to say the broader issues, not just the conduct of individual members, are carried out in accordance with:

  • legislation;
  • regulations;
  • ministerial direction; and
  • policy.

Such investigations have included workplace harassment in the RCMP, strip searches and the RCMP's use of crime reduction units. The role of provinces in the RCMP oversight framework was also enhanced at that time.

Provincial ministers now receive copies of the CRCC's final reports related to reviews requested by citizens of their province. We also provide copies of the broad-based systemic investigation reports to contract provinces and territories. These reports are publicly available on our website. And perhaps of great interest to this committee, a provincial Minister responsible for policing in a contract province can now request that the CRCC undertake a review of RCMP activities in their province.

There is also a statutory requirement for the CRCC to prepare an annual report to provinces setting out the number and nature of RCMP public complaints in the province, and how those complaints were disposed of. These reports are also publicly available on our website.

The 2014 amendments to the RCMP Act further provided the CRCC with the authority to summon witnesses, to compel testimony and to compel document production—similar to the powers of a commission of inquiry. The CRCC was given the ability to undertake joint investigations, reviews or hearings with other provincial police complaint bodies. Unfortunately most provincial police complaints bodies do not have reciprocal statutory authority to conduct joint reviews.

In terms of structure, the CRCC consists of a Chairperson, a Vice-Chairperson and not more than four other members, appointed by the Governor in Council. To avoid any real or perceived bias, the law prohibits a person from being appointed as a CRCC member, including the Chairperson, if they are a current or former RCMP officer. Presently, the CRCC has approximately 75 employees consisting of lawyers, investigators, policy and research analysts, intake officers and corporate support.

To make a complaint, individuals can:

  • access the complaint form online through our website;
  • mail or fax their completed complaint form to the CRCC; or
  • make a complaint in person at any RCMP detachment—where a member will provide assistance in filling out the online form.

The CRCC will also accept a complaint from a representative authorized by the individual involved in the matter. The CRCC receives 90% of complaints directly from the public. The remainder are filed with the RCMP, typically at a detachment.

As Chairperson, I also have the authority to initiate a complaint when I am satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to investigate. In addition, I have the authority to investigate any complaint when I am of the opinion that it will be in the public interest to do so. These investigations are carried out by CRCC staff.

The public complaint system requires accessibility, trust and transparency to be effective. To that end, the public complaint form is available in 16 different languages on the CRCC's website. We recently worked with the territorial government of Nunavut to ensure that the complaint form and additional materials on the complaint process were available in Inuktitut. In addition, with the assistance of the Translation Bureau, CRCC staff has the ability to communicate with individuals by phone, in the language of their choice, to ensure that our intake team fully understands the concerns of the individual looking to file a public complaint.

We have recently begun posting summaries of our findings and recommendations resulting from our complaint reviews and I have introduced a plain language policy at the CRCC. It is important to me that my decisions are clear, understandable and accessible for all Canadians.

Although the CRCC is an independent review body, the RCMP is a partner in the public complaint process. The CRCC's work relies on access to RCMP documents and members. To facilitate that work, the CRCC entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the RCMP for the first time in late 2019. It is publicly available on the CRCC's website. The MOU guides operations in relation to complaints, reviews, and investigations. It establishes timelines in an effort to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of operations.

Although most elements of the MOU are working well over the past year, I have expressed my concerns with the time it takes the RCMP to respond to CRCC reports. At present, the RCMP Act requires the RCMP Commissioner to respond to CRCC interim reports as soon as feasible, while the MOU stipulates a response be provided within six months from the issuance of the CRCC report.

The RCMP Commissioner has committed to improving the response time and in the past six months, we have received nearly 40 responses. I appreciate the RCMP's recent efforts to reduce the backlog of RCMP Commissioner's Responses. However, I maintain that statutory timelines are necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the accountability regime, based on the timelines in the MOU. In that regard, I have recommended to the Minister of Public Safety that the RCMP Act be amended to include statutory timelines for the RCMP Commissioner to respond to CRCC reports. Improving timeliness is both in the public interest and in the interest of RCMP members.

In an effort to further enhance accountability, existing legislation requires that the RCMP Commissioner respond to reports and indicate whether the recommendations are accepted. The RCMP Commissioner recently provided me with a list of CRCC recommendations and the status of implementation. However, there is NO statutory requirement for the RCMP to confirm the degree to which the CRCC's recommendations have been implemented. This is a major gap.

As such, I have recommended that the RCMP Act be amended requiring the RCMP to report annually, either to the Minister or to myself, on the implementation of CRCC recommendations. Having a statutory reporting requirement would increase the transparency of the complaint system and reassure the public that the RCMP is held to a high standard of accountability.

As noted by my colleague Clayton Pecknold, the Police Complaints Commissioner in BC, transparency is an important facet of oversight. In that regard, the CRCC posts summaries of public complaint decisions on our website, in addition to reporting statistics and trends regarding allegations and complaints in the CRCC's annual report to Parliament.

I believe it is important that the Canadian public be aware of our work and the recommendations we make—as well as the RCMP's response.

As the only national police complaints and review body in Canada, the CRCC is uniquely positioned to provide leadership in fostering excellence in policing through oversight. For over a decade the CRCC has hosted an annual Heads of Agency meeting, which brings together the senior leadership of police oversight bodies from across Canada, to discuss issues that shape the future of policing and police accountability. Both the Police Complaint Commissioner of BC and the Independent Investigations Office of BC attend our annual fall meetings.

In recent years, we heard from experts on issues such as:

  • challenges facing Indigenous People in the Canadian justice system;
  • trauma-informed investigative techniques;
  • mental Health and Policing; and
  • systemic racism in Canada in relation to policing and police oversight.

With the CRCC's mandate extending to all provinces and territories, we have the benefit of seeing differences and best practices in RCMP policing, both rural and urban, across Canada and apply that to our work. Canadians can also be assured that one standard is being applied to all RCMP complaints. The CRCC makes broad-ranging recommendations regarding policies, procedures and training. The ultimate goal is to improve policing and enhance RCMP accountability to the communities they serve whether that be in British Columbia or across Canada.

To provide but one of many examples, in the CRCC's investigation into a fatal motor vehicle incident in Langley, BC, the CRCC found that RCMP national policies relating to traffic checkpoints were inadequate. The CRCC recommended that the RCMP amend national policy to provide specific guidance on the set-up of police checkpoints to minimize the risk of vehicle pursuits. The RCMP Commissioner accepted this recommendation, thus benefitting not only people in Langley, but Canadians in RCMP‑policed communities across the country.

I believe that greater police accountability is achieved through effective oversight, not only for public complaints, but also through broad-based investigations of systemic issues. The CRCC's ability to initiate systemic reviews ensures that issues emerging in one division are examined across the RCMP, and broad-based change can be effected as needed. CRCC investigators, supported by research and policy analysts, undertake such reviews.

The CRCC is currently reviewing the RCMP's bias-free policing model. This systemic investigation is examining their bias-free policing policies and training, and assessing the broader application and accountability framework that is in place to ensure that members adhere to these policies. Other investigations include strip searches by the RCMP, and the use of crime reduction units.

The results of these investigations are available on the CRCC's website and were provided to ministers responsible for policing in contract provinces, as well as the territories.

Some key findings in the strip search report, in relation to British Columbia, included:

  • significant improvements in "E" Division policy, though the CRCC recommended that divisional personal search policies be amended to enhance transparency and accountability by including a means to record, track and assess compliance;
  • given the lack of adequate training related to strip searches across the RCMP, the CRCC recommended the RCMP introduce divisional-level mandatory training;
  • the CRCC noted good practices in both the Prince George Detachment and the Surrey Detachment cell blocks.
    • Prince George developed a manual to help members better understand and comply with policies and jurisprudence.
    • The cell block in Surrey includes a large poster entitled "Strip Search Policy Advisory," as a reference tool for members.

The CRCC recommended that the RCMP adopt these good practices across the country, and the RCMP accepted the recommendations.

Over the past four years, the CRCC issued 14 reports concerning individual cases from across the country where the RCMP's actions concerning a wellness check or person in crisis was unreasonable. Wellness checks have increasingly become an issue of concern in BC, as well as the rest of the country, and this past summer, I released a statement.

Congruent with Justice Braidwood's observations, the CRCC's findings have consistently highlighted concerns about police adopting a "command and control" approach—an authoritative style of dealing with a non‑compliant person. In turn, the CRCC has made recommendations to the RCMP aimed at finding the right balance in responding to such calls, through effective policies, procedures and most importantly training.

On average, the CRCC receives between 2,500 and 3,000 complaints annually RCMP‑wide. For more information on public complaints specific to RCMP members in British Columbia, please consult the package we provided or access the provincial/territorial reports posted to our website.

In contract provinces, such as British Columbia, the CRCC works closely with its provincial counterparts, both the complaints body and the serious incident investigative body.

The CRCC employs a "no-wrong-door" policy with provincial complaints commission, a practice introduced over a decade ago. This approach was a key element in the handling of police complaints during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. In British Columbia, if we receive a complaint about an Abbotsford police officer, for example, we would forward the complaint to the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner for action and the OPCC would do the same if they received a complaint regarding an RCMP member.

In relation to serious incidents, the CRCC regularly liaises with independent investigative bodies to determine whether any policy or procedural issues exist beyond the criminal investigation. In the course of a serious incident investigation, the investigative body may note issues with police conduct that does not meet the threshold of criminality. By flagging this to the CRCC, it ensures that all aspects of conduct including any potential systemic issues are examined thoroughly.

For example, in the case of the police-involved shooting death of Gregory Matters in Prince George, the CRCC launched a Chair-initiated complaint and public interest investigation following the completion of the investigation by the BC Independent Investigations Office. Once the IIO determined that no criminal offence was committed by RCMP members, the CRCC examined the reasonableness of member conduct and the adequacy of training, policies and procedures. The CRCC's review resulted in 57 findings and 9 recommendations.

The CRCC is actively involved in issues affecting policing and public trust in British Columbia. We are a member of the Advisory Committee on Provincial Policing Standards, led by Policing and Security Branch of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General

We actively worked with the RCMP and the BC Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls coalition, led by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, for resolving public complaints arising out of the National Inquiry's work. I met with the BC Ombudsman and shared concerns regarding municipal guards in RCMP detachments, which represents a significant gap in the oversight framework. Most recently, I participated in the IIO's Community, Police, Oversight Joint Forum.

In the CRCC's Northern British Columbia investigation, we asked members of Indigenous communities why they do not make use of the complaint system. We learned that many Indigenous people are either unaware of the public complaint process or do not trust it. The process can be excessively bureaucratic and difficult to navigate.

Ultimately, my goal is for people to believe that they can file a complaint with the CRCC and be treated fairly, without fear of reprisal, particularly Indigenous people, racialized people, and marginalized people. To achieve that, we need to consult with communities to identify and break down the systemic barriers that exist within our current system and implement their suggested changes.

In December, I submitted a number of recommendations to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security in relation to its study onsSystemic racism in policing in Canada. Among the recommendations, I have called on the Government of Canada to appoint an Indigenous person as a member of the CRCC. I also recommended that public education and outreach to Indigenous and racialized communities become statutory requirements for the CRCC.

After all, the only way that the public complaint process works is if people trust the system. The only way to build that trust is through consultation, education and ongoing assessment of our outreach efforts.

I have also committed to collecting and reporting on disaggregated race-based data. Over the past few years, the CRCC has noted an increase in the number of complaints. I am hopeful that this is an indication of further awareness and trust in the complaints system. Without race-based data however it is difficult to determine whether certain groups, such as Indigenous persons, are increasingly taking advantage of the complaint process. The collection of this data is critical to our efforts to address barriers to everyone accessing the system.

Internally, the CRCC has established an Advisory Committee on Inclusion, Diversity and Equity. The purpose of the committee is to provide advice and guidance to the Chairperson and senior management on issues or emerging trends that affect the CRCC's ability to meet its statutory mandate, as well as public expectation.

The CRCC has over 30 years of experience overseeing the RCMP and is uniquely qualified to provide insight and recommendations on strengthening police accountability. In that regard, I would offer that reforming policing and police oversight must be viewed through a lens of improving outcomes for all, by eliminating barriers that result in disproportionately negative results for certain groups particularly Indigenous and racialized peoples, as well as people in mental crisis.

Thank you again for inviting me today. I am happy to respond to any questions you may have.

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