The Last Guardians:
The Crisis in the RCMP . . . And in Canada

288 pages,
ISBN: 0771069065

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Rule of Law Under the Gun
by Kevin Dwyer

Paul Palango is deeply concerned about both the state of Canada and the Rule of Law. Nowhere else is his concern more manifest than in his investigations into the state of federal law enforcement today. His first book, Above the Law, focuses on high-level corruption within the Canadian establishment and obstructions the Mounties face in their attempts to deal with it. In his second book, The Last Guardians, Palango uses the RCMP as a barometer of the state of confederation. To understand what "bedevils the RCMP, one must appreciate what bedevils Canada, and ironically one way to do that is to see Canada through the eyes of its greatest police force." While the book is an excellent study of our proud guardians in red, it suffers ultimately from a lack of a critical perspective on number of crucial issues.

In The Last Guardians, Palango broadens his scope significantly while simultaneously betraying his objectivity. He considers the RCMP a "noble" institution, the "only pure-hearted guardians left". Citing the decline of family, church, school, and work-all of whose "powers were only as strong as the bond an individual had with the guardian institution"-Palango asks what happens when a guardian organization, whose goal is the public interest, becomes enveloped in ideologies that are "antithetical" to its stated purpose. Setting aside the questions of whether the first four institutions are in decline, or even if they are representative of the important and ever-changing institutions in society, the question of ideologies that may be antithetical to a guardian institution's purpose is an excellent one.

Here Palango has the potential to build on strong points made in Above the Law. In that work, he argues that the political supervision of high profile criminal investigations and the general public's fear of increasing police powers have restricted and reduced RCMP effectiveness in their exclusive investigative jurisdiction: that of federal and multi-jurisdictional commercial crime. However, the focus on federal investigations gets lost as Palango argues that the problems of the RCMP are due to the infiltration of business values into the myriad activities of government and, therefore, of law enforcement.

Originating in the Glassco Commission during the 1960s, the antithetical ideologies that laid "the seeds of ruin" of today's RCMP derive from corporatism, decentralization of powers to the provinces, bilingualism, biculturalism, the perennial Quebec problem, and a fusion of free-market with Keynesian economic ideas. This nexus of elements opened up the treasury to all kinds of spending in the name of the public interest. The RCMP, a national police force and a counter-intelligence security service since its creation in 1920, adapted to the times by embracing these programs and by establishing the Commercial Crime Branch. At this time, the RCMP became a catch-all police force that could be found doing anything, at any level, anywhere across the country in their own jurisdiction and in those provincial and local jurisdictions that welcomed them. However, the possibility that the RCMP may have been engaged in a little misguided institutional empire-building eludes Palango. In his view, the RCMP is the victim, an entity without an agenda of its own. Whether or not this is the case, the expanded and unwieldy size of the RCMP was to become the source of chronic problems in the future.

When the treasury was exhausted and the deficit was racing out of control some twenty odd years later, the belt-tightening period started and changes in the way the RCMP operated had to be made. Now, argues Palango, the real impact of business values was being felt. "Powerful and insidious" neo-conservative and neo-liberal market values are transforming law enforcement in Canada. Now competing with and substituting for the RCMP are private security and police forces at the local level and forensic accounting firms at the federal level. This is where Palango's strongest point is made: "The great irony here is that many businesses are largely devoid of any sense of ethics or integrity. What matters is the bottom line. Yet governments, in their wisdom, are ceding large areas of policing jurisdiction... No matter how much one tries to dress it up, in their private sector `police work' forensic accountants and their ex-police investigators...are still doing an undeniably dirty job. Neither of them owes their first allegiance to either the public or national interest."

While the deficit may be reduced, the real but hidden cost of this process is to the public interest. Forensic accounting firms always get paid regardless of the results. Cases that could provide important precedents of law for the public interest are settled just prior to court proceedings. The loss to the public interest is a loss for each and every Canadian citizen and especially those too unfortunate, poor or ill-equipped to mount their own cases. On this point, Palango is unassailable. His claim that the RCMP Commercial Crime Branch investigators were like the "great equalizers" of Canadian society is hard to dispute and so makes the case for a strong RCMP role in regard to the investigation of commercial crime, wherever it leads.

That said, I think Palango's broad approach is problematic. There seem to be no limits to what has hampered the RCMP. The result is a study which Palango himself admits "meanders" through the present and the past to find what ails the RCMP. Inevitably, such an approach exposes a number of logical inconsistencies and weak links, not to mention some disturbing lines of thought, that detract from the important points he does raise.

For instance, Palango asserts that the power of a guardian is dependent on the bond an individual has with the institution; yet Palango is deeply concerned about the "threat" of closer bonds between the individual and the institution embodied in community-based policing techniques. Community-based policing focuses on close cooperation and integration. It builds a network of familiarity between citizens and law enforcement to avoid problems before they start. In contrast, reform or traditional methods of policing focus on a detached and impartial perspective that promotes coercive and reactive intervention. On comparison, it would seem that the reform model of policing is the antithesis of Palango's individual-institution bond while the community-based approach could be a synthesis; but Palango promotes the former over the latter and even raises the spectre of totalitarianism, a nascent but "real" danger associated with the community approach.

Another serious inconsistency regards Palango's disdain for the business values that seem to be ruining the RCMP. But midway through his study, he states the opposite: "More than any other police force in North America and, perhaps, the world, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has always had an entrepreneurial side, due mainly to its contract policing duties for the provinces, territories, and two hundred Canadian municipalities that purchase their services." The RCMP are "pure-hearted" and so, he rationalizes, immune from the selfish effects of business concerns. Obviously this gloss-over is inadequate considering the thrust of his argument.

One final example involves the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Palango believes the Charter has tipped the balance away from the Canadian "collectivity" towards individual rights. In the process, the work of the RCMP has become harder and the deck stacked "in favor of anyone with money to outlast the will and resources of the justice system". Although this problem was certainly evident prior to the Charter, here the central issue becomes corporations which are recognized as individuals under the law and the threat they pose to democracy and the public good. Meanwhile, Palango advocates a view in which the RCMP must retain extraordinary powers within society. "They can and must be able to use the law to pry into people's lives, take away their freedoms, and kill them if necessary, to defend the public or national interest." If corporate individuals are his chief concern, but he advocates the killing of individual citizens, then what is the basis of the public interest? The "collectivity"? That is nothing more than the aggregate of individual citizens, and Palango does not make the connection between the two. In plain and simple language, Palango wants the "last Guardian" to protect Canada from the various forms of individualism and the cost of this, despite his professed concern about the interests of citizens, is each individual's right to decide what Canada is for him or herself. This is a disturbing and paternal idea, and one which the advent of the Charter is slowly but thankfully putting to rest. 

Kevin Dwyer studies Political Science at the University of British Columbia. As President of the Graduate Student Society, he gained first-hand experience with the difficulties facing the RCMP. He is also a principal witness in the APEC proceedings currently underway in Vancouver, specifically as regards the illegal removal of the Tibetan flag from the Graduate Student Centre by the RCMP.


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