OTTAWA — The head of the RCMP Heritage Centre in Saskatchewan says that after it completed a round of consultations on how it can transform into a national museum, the ball is now in Ottawa's court.
"We really needed to hear from Canadians," said Tara Robinson, the CEO of the Regina-based museum focused on the history of the Mounties.
"There's never been a more complex time for policing in our country," she said Friday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the 2019 election campaign that the Liberals would expand the RCMP Heritage Centre, which is currently operated by a charitable organization, into a national institution.
Involving a wide swath of Canadians, including from LGBTQ and Indigenous communities, in discussions about those efforts to grow was a key condition set by the federal Heritage Department, which oversees national museums such as the National Gallery of Canada.
Documents The Canadian Press obtained through access-to-information legislation suggest there was some initial resistance to the scope of those consultations, although Robinson stressed that came "really early on in the process."
The back-and-forth about what it would take to create a national RCMP museum is contained in roughly 600 pages of emails and other documents from 2020 and 2021.
Located on the grounds of the RCMP Academy's Depot Division in Regina, where Mounties receive their training, the centre serves as a museum on the history of the national police force, which began as the North-West Mounted Police in 1873.
"Right now, the centre is frozen in time," said Robinson, adding that exhibits only cover events up until the 1970s.
"We need to address residential schools," she said. "We need to address the how the RCMP has evolved."
The centre has spent years advocating to gain national museum status, which would require the federal government to amend the Museums Act. National museums operate as Crown Corporations and have their operating costs covered by Ottawa.
According to emails, federal officials estimated the process would take 18 to 24 months. But the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 stalled work on the file.
By the fall, the centre inquired about progress, highlighting its goal to see its doors open as a national museum in 2023, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the RCMP.
The then-deputy minister of Canadian Heritage sent a letter, the contents of which have been partially redacted, outlining the specific steps the centre must take to advance in the process.
That included doing more community engagement.
"While the RCMP have played an important role in our history, not all Canadians view the RCMP from the same perspective," wrote Hélène Laurendeau, who has since retired.
Steve McLellan, the centre's board chair at the time, replied to say while the next steps were clear, "I must note the degree of due diligence you outline might be perceived by some to be undue hesitancy."
He goes on to say that among other work it had done, the centre had already collected around 4,400 responses through a survey, adding the pandemic left the centre in dire financial straights.
"A commitment was made and we believe work must be expedited to make this transition a reality," McLellan wrote.
Even before the COVID-19 struck, documents show the centre, which sees around 20,000 visitors per year, was struggling. It brought in $3.5 million in 2019, but spent $3.7 million.
Laurendeau wrote back in December 2020 saying due diligence was required to ensure any future museum would fit with the Liberal government's priorities, "including promoting gender equality, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, greening initiatives," as well as hearing diverse perspectives.
By February 2021, McLellan again expressed concern about the ask to do national consultations without a more firm commitment from officials that the centre would in fact become a national museum.
"We cannot dictate a vision for a museum that might not exist and we're not prepared to rush this process or risk public backlash because of lack of federal support and appropriate funding."
He added the department's actions amounted to a "roadblock" and the centre lacked the resources to do more consultations "of the necessary scale or accountability Canadian Heritage has demanded."
McLellan, who Robinson said has since retired from the board, did not respond to emails requesting comment in time for publication.
Ultimately, the federal government offered the centre $4.5 million in its spring 2021 budget. In late December, the centre published a report on what it heard through a consultation process that began in early 2022.
Murray Sinclair, who was the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Phil Fontaine, a past national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, were among those the report said were interviewed about the project and voiced support.
"I want to see Indigenous faces in the centre when I walk in. Black faces. Female faces. Not a lineup of white men," Sinclair said, according to the document.
Robinson, who became the centre's CEO in 2021, said she agrees the initial survey was not good enough. She said the centre has since submitted its recent consultation results as well as a corporate plan to Canadian Heritage officials.
Robinson said she believes it's a "rock solid" plan for a policing museum that balances honouring the sacrifices of RCMP members, while "creating a space to have difficult conversations."
Getting national status by the end of the year remains the "dream," she said, adding the centre also intends to ask for capital funding and raise some of the money itself.
A spokeswoman for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez did not provide a timeline or say when an amendment would be made to the Museums Act.
“Canadian Heritage officials are consulting with the RCMP Heritage Centre on an ongoing basis," Laura Scaffidi wrote in an email.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2023.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press