By Peter Jackson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Three years ago, Becky Michelin recalled a horrific night in winter 1993 when she was awoken by loud bangs in their home in Rigolet, on the Labrador coast.
When she came out to see what was happening, the then-four-year-old girl found her mother, Deidre, lying on the floor.
“I remember shaking my mother, trying to wake her up. She was surrounded in blood,” she told freelance writer Danette Dooley in 2019. “I shook her. `Mom, wake up.’ But she didn’t.”
Then she saw her father’s bloodied body.
He was holding a gun.
Deidre Marie Michelin, 21, was an Inuit mother of four when she was murdered on Jan. 20, 1993 by her domestic partner, who then took his own life.
During the day, she had made more than one distress call to the Happy Valley_Goose Bay RCMP, 160 kilometres away.
They were ignored.
Deidre’s story is only one of more than 1,000 highlighted in the
2019 final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Children (MMIWG), which issued 231 calls for justice.
It was also highlighted in a report issued by the First Voice Working Group on Police Oversight released last week in St. John’s, entitled “Building Trust, Restoring Confidence”.
But while the previous document calls for significant reforms within the national police force, the First Voice proposals go further.
Eventually, when the time is right, they want the RCMP taken completely out of the picture.
Problems with the RCMP go all the way back to 1873, says Justin Campbell, when its predecessor, the North West Mounted Police, was established. The primary task of the police was forcibly removing Native people off their land.
“As we’ve detailed in the report, the RCMP has a long history of colonialist violence,” said Campbell, program manager for First Voice.
“They also played a critical role in abducting Indigenous children and bringing them to residential schools.”
He said the RCMP tends to be geographically and jurisdictionally detached from many of the communities it serves.
“It just doesn’t serve communities well. If we look at the relationship between the RCMP and Indigenous communities, in particular in Labrador, we see a fly-in, fly-out model which does nothing to build trust with the communities there that they serve.”
Instead, he said, the province should work towards establishing the kind of community policing it needs on its own.
“Once we’ve done that, there is no need for the RCMP, which, time and time again, has shown itself to be highly sexist, misogynistic, racist and unable to change.”
The labels might seem inflammatory, but a series of reports into police misconduct over the past three decades adds substance to the allegations.
One of the most damning documents was written by former Supreme Court judge Michel Bastarache in the wake of hundreds of allegations of sexual harassment and assault from with the RMCP’s own ranks.
“For the last 30 years, issues of workplace and sexual harassment and discrimination have been brought to the attention of the Government of Canada and the RCMP through internal reports, external reports and litigation before the courts,” Bastarache wrote in his 2020 report.
“The measures taken in response have not, in my view, succeeded in addressing the underlying issues arising from the RCMP’s toxic culture.”
After interviewing more than 600 women, among others, Bastarache saw the same troubling trends occurring over and over again and suggested radical change was needed.
“A fundamental restructuring may be necessary to resolve entrenched issues of misogyny, racism and homophobia,” he wrote.
Nonetheless, one of his key recommendations, the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the complaints, was summarily rejected by RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki in June 2021.
“We don’t need special prosecutors,” Lucki told Parliament in 2021. “It’ll be brought to a Canadian court, and the charges will be laid and people will be held to account if the evidence is there.”
Bastarache oversaw millions in compensation to more than 2,000 women in a class action settlement that spanned decades. More than
230 of the sexual assault cases involved penetration.
The theme of an unsalvageable police force was floated in another report in May this year by the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA), which expanded on Bastarache’s findings and called for an external review of the RCMP.
One of its authors, Metropolitan University of Toronto professor Pam Palmater, has rarely minced words when it comes to calling out the disturbing legacy of the force.
“If you combine their racism and their misogyny and their sexualized violence with their high levels of corruption, which the RCMP themselves have confirmed, then what you have is a scenario where no one is ever held to account for the crimes that they committed or I should say, at best, they’re treated like a workplace issue,” Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer, told The Telegram last week.
“And, because all of this is at every level, from recruits to juniors to middle management, all the way up to the top of the racism, sexual violence, the corruption, they have no incentives and no interest to change themselves.”
Rather than answering to an insurance company, she said, officers often face minimum discipline. Any litigation is settled with taxpayers’ money.
“There’s no ramifications for what they do. Keep in mind, if any of them are publicly prosecuted for any reason, they’re off with full pay, their lawyers are paid for, the whole institution supports them.”
For Palmater, the answer is clear.
“When you have an institution that refuses to address racism, misogyny, sexualized violence and corruption, despite a million inquiries and commissions, then it’s an institution that simply can’t function in the future. It’s got to be dismantled,” she said.
In Nova Scotia, talk of removing RCMP services from that province have arisen in the past because of similar complaints, but the idea has gained new agency in the wake of the Portapique mass murder.
One of numerous voices who have raised the issue is Charles Thompson, a lawyer representing the Truro Police Service, who made his case before the Mass Casualty Commission public inquiry last month.
“It is clear that the current structure of policing in Nova Scotia has significant problems, as illustrated by the mass casualty and issues that have arisen and have become clear since,” Thompson said.
“Truro Police Service submits that the RCMP does not have the capacity to adequately engage in contracting policing at this stage.
The RCMP is stretched too thin, trying to do too many things.”
At first glance, it may seem Newfoundland and Labrador could ill afford to lose the services of the RCMP, which exclusively handles all policing outside the more populated centres of Labrador City, Corner Brook and St. John’s.
Even then, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary itself is stretched thin and often relies on joint operations with its federal counterpart.
But the cost of the province’s contract with the RCMP is no small amount.
Both forces have a similar numbers of officers in the province, between 400 and 450 each, but the price tag for the RCMP has been higher.
Last year, the RNC’s total budget was about $56 million, while the RCMP cost the province more than $75 million.
In the current budget, the RCMP bottom line jumped to more than
Asked for an explanation, the Department of Justice attributed a hike in the base rate to federally negotiated salary increases for officers, as well as operational expenses, such as equipment, vehicles and training.
“The $17 million also includes funding to support the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program and forensic casework analysis arising from criminal investigations for both the RNC and RCMP,” it said in a statement.
It’s the first increase in nearly a decade.
There are a few apples and oranges among those numbers.
Among them is the fact that, as a national force, the RCMP has more extensive investigative and forensic capabilities.
But as Palmater points out, the idea is not to simply remove one police force and replace it with another.
“The real question is not what we replace it with, but what is it that we want for community safety?” she said.
“You know, most governments are going to say, well, there’s got to be some level of policing because there’s violence and gangs and serial killers or whatever. OK, so there’s a protection and security function.”
Investigating crime is another function, she said.
“And I would argue that insurance companies have a far higher success rate with their investigations for alleged crimes than police officers do,” she said.
“And then you have other functions like, say, national security and intelligence. Should that be done by the RCMP?”
Palmater said civilian resources, such as forensics labs, don’t have to disappear along with the force.
“The labs aren’t going to just magically burn down. They’re still there, the expertise is still there, it’s just who are they affiliated with and for what purposes,” she said.
Meanwhile, closer to home, the First Voice working group report found RCMP abuses and neglect have continued long beyond the Deidre Michelin tragedy.
“The RCMP has frequently been criticized for abusing and intimidating Indigenous people,” the authors reported, pointing to what Indigenous land protectors described as heavy-handed tactics during protests against the Muskrat Falls project.
“Similar stories were submitted to the MMIWG Inquiry, detailing how RCMP officers, unprovoked, suddenly moved in and physically dragged away three Indigenous individuals that were peacefully protesting on their traditional territory. One of those people was a woman who was taken into custody, away from her community, without notice to her family and friends.”
Stacey Howse, executive director of the First Light friendship centre in St. John’s, said last week a recent Assembly of First Nations survey of Indigenous people across Newfoundland and Labrador found unacceptable behaviour on the part of both RCMP and Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers.
“These behaviours include the confiscation of sacred items such as eagle feathers and medicine bundles, physical intimidation, and openly mocking cultural traditions,” she said.
But the First Voice proposals for civilian-led police oversight in the province can’t extend to the RCMP because the province has limited jurisdiction.
“This is but one reason,” the authors wrote, “why contract policing by the RCMP needs to be phased out in Newfoundland and Labrador following the full implementation of the (report’s) recommendations.”
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with
THE TELEGRAM. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.