OTTAWA — A public inquiry is calling for a clearer definition of the relationship between the federal minister of public safety and the commissioner of the RCMP in light of allegations of political interference in the investigation into the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia.
But the Liberal government stopped short of accepting the commission's specific recommendations on Thursday.
The Mass Casualty Commission, which examined the circumstances and aftermath of the rampage in which a gunman killed 22 people, says the RCMP Act should be updated to remove a line that says the commissioner holds office "under the direction of the minister."
"On its face, this section appears to provide the responsible minister with an unlimited power to direct the commissioner of the RCMP. However, the act has not been interpreted so broadly," the report says.
The commission referenced a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that said the minister cannot issue political directions to the commissioner about how the force pursues an investigation.
However, questions about potential inappropriate political pressure on the police dominated part of the inquiry's public hearings last fall after senior members of the Nova Scotia RCMP accused then-commissioner Brenda Lucki and former public safety minister Bill Blair of political interference.
In a teleconference 10 days after the massacre, Lucki expressed frustration with how the local RCMP was communicating with the public, especially on details about the weapons used in the killing, and referenced forthcoming federal gun legislation.
Lucki said on the call that she had a request from Blair's office for information, and said she would have to apologize to him and the prime minister because the information about weapons was not part of a press conference earlier that day, as she had told them it would be.
"I could care less that I have to apologize for dropping the ball. It's about the reflection of our organization, and it's about a reflection that makes it look like we don't know what we're doing," she said, according to an audio recording of the call.
When those comments came to light, they led to weeks of political squabbling in Ottawa over whether Blair and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were interfering in the investigation.
The commission concludes in its report that there was no interference.
"Commissioner Lucki's audio-recorded remarks about the benefits to police of proposed firearms legislation were ill-timed and poorly expressed, but they were not partisan or indicative of any attempted political interference," the report says.
Still, the commissioners want the act changed "to ensure that these principles become firmly entrenched and widely understood," in line with legislation in other countries, such as South Australia's police act.
They propose instead that any direction from the minister come in writing, be published in the Canada Gazette within eight days and put before Parliament within six days. They add that direction should not relate to "the appointment, transfer, remuneration, discipline, or termination of a particular person."
Another change would see the RCMP and the Public Safety Department publicly share written policies setting out their respective roles, responsibilities and expectations, so that it is clear the minister is accountable for publicly sharing information about the RCMP and its operations.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said his government will "look very closely at" the recommendations and stressed that he respects police operational independence.
As minister, he said, his job is "not to meddle in those operational responses but rather to set policy direction and priorities and to make sure that police have the tools and the resources that are necessary."
The fact that the Liberal government is not immediately committing to implement the recommendations "shows profound disrespect for the victims and their families," the NDP's public safety critic said.
"(The report) tragically, sadly, points the way for reforms that should have been put in place years ago," Peter Julian told reporters on Thursday.
"We know that this government has not acted on police reforms around training, around communications, around responses to victims. And this has to be a wake-up call for the government to finally take action on recommendations that they have been sitting on for years."
The commission's calls for change also extend to RCMP oversight, with the report saying the force is slow to respond to public complaints and to the independent Civilian Review and Complaints Commission.
It notes the story of a Portapique resident, Leon Joudrey, who filed a complaint with that body about the RCMP's actions on April 19, 2020. RCMP arrived at his home that morning after he called 911 when the gunman's common-law partner, Lisa Banfield, knocked on his door, injured and distraught after spending hours hiding in the woods. Joudrey alleged that police pointed a gun at him and failed to warn him about the danger in the community during the rampage.
The chair of the complaints commission asked for his file to be investigated by someone from outside the Nova Scotia RCMP. But the Mass Casualty Commission report says a Nova Scotia RCMP supervisor was assigned instead.
As a result, it's calling for changes to ensure that complaints are not assigned to the direct supervisors of, or people in the same program as, the subject of the complaint.
There are currently no timelines for the RCMP to investigate public complaints, and Joudrey's complaint was still being investigated when he died in October 2022.
The report calls for better funding of the complaints commission, legislated timelines, annual public reports, and clarification about ways to resolve complaints with a timely investigation.
Mendicino would only commit to the changes set out in his ministerial mandate letter on Thursday.
"We're committed to strengthening oversight, to strengthening accountability, to strengthening transparency so that Canadians can have trust and confidence in the RCMP and all of their law enforcement institutions," he said.
Meanwhile, the federal Conservatives don't agree with the commission's findings about Lucki.
"In the aftermath of the shooting, there was also significant alleged interference for political gain," Nova Scotia MPs Stephen Ellis, Rick Perkins and Chris d'Entremont said in a written statement.
"Promises to the government to release specific investigative details could have jeopardized the entire investigation."
Their statement also said the public inquiry and its process left families feeling "empty (and) abandoned."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.
Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press