Jack Knox: Loyalty battles with reality as Mountie morale dips

Jack Knox mugshot genericThe Mounties have a morale problem. Chronic understaffing. Lack of resources. Frustration over a hierarchy that leaves ordinary cops without a voice in dealing with a management they don’t trust.

Their pay has been slipping relative to other forces for a decade, recruitment is a challenge and they are losing officers to other departments, including the four municipal ones in Greater Victoria.

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“It’s a big deal and most Canadians aren’t even aware that it’s happening,” Sen. Colin Kenny said.

The question for several hundred Mounties on Vancouver Island — and the communities they serve — is: What is the federal government going to do about it?

As it is, some members feel unsupported in what is already an isolating job. “When your own organization doesn’t have your back, it becomes even more lonesome,” is how one Island RCMP officer put it last week.

At issue right now is a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision to allow Mounties to form a union or professional association to represent them. The court gave Parliament until this spring to pass the necessary legislation, but the politicians — who have embraced the idea with all the enthusiasm of a man going for a prostate exam — missed the deadline.

The Liberal government did push a bill through the House of Commons but it was so restrictive — it wouldn’t have let the union negotiate issues such as equipment, harassment and discipline — that a Senate committee booted an amended version back to the Commons in June.

What happens when MPs return to Ottawa this fall is uncertain. Governments don’t like it when the Senate throws legislation back at them with heavy rewrites, said Kenny, who was among the committee members who amended the bill.

The committee did so not long after a Treasury Board summary of consultations with more than 9,000 Mounties — half the force — found indications of a “serious morale challenge” and “a major disconnect between the rank and file and senior management.”

Those findings were no surprise to Kenny. In 2010, he was one of six Liberal-appointed senators who published a report portraying the RCMP as a cash-starved outfit lacking in leadership. They said the force needed to hire at least 5,000 more members.

That hasn’t happened. Detachments continue to run under strength. “If I wanted to work an overtime shift every day and every night, I could,” the Island Mountie said. “People are getting burned out.”

The force constantly finds itself robbing Peter to pay Paul. Vancouver Island mayors complained that a decision to send members to an anti-gang initiative in Surrey left their detachments short. Kenny said devoting more cops to counter-terrorism efforts made sense, but it meant robbing other units. “It left white-collar crime investigations just sitting there.”

Former Mountie Rob Creasser said the force has to re-evaluate its mandate, which includes everything from wrestling drunks in small-town Vancouver Island to battling organized crime in the Lower Mainland to national security. “We can’t continue to be all things to all people … with the resources we currently have,” he said from Kamloops.

Creasser speaks for the Mounted Police Professional Association, which is vying with the National Police Federation to represent rank-and-file members.

Recruitment and retention of officers has become difficult for the RCMP. “Part of the problem is people don’t want to join the Mounties,” Kenny said. “There are a whole lot of places that have better pay and working conditions than they do.”

The RCMP reacted to that challenge this May by streamlining the recruitment process, opening it to permanent residents of Canada and promising western Canadian applicants postings in their home province.

But RCMP pay relative to other major police agencies has been slipping since 2006. An RCMP senior constable makes $82,000 a year, about $10,000 less than the base salary of a five-year constable in Greater Victoria’s municipal departments.

The pay gap is one reason Mounties have been drifting to municipal forces.

Of the eight experienced police officers hired by Saanich Police since January 2014, six have come from the RCMP.

Six Mounties moved to Victoria Police between 2007 and 2015.

Central Saanich’s 25-member force has added three former RCMP members in the past five years.

Oak Bay has hired six Mounties in the past five years. Ten of the force’s 26 members began their careers with the RCMP.

Some municipal forces have recruited Mounties aggressively; Calgary scooped up 22 of them in 2014 alone.

Municipal departments can give officers the comfort of knowing they won’t be transferred to other communities, and often have better resources at hand, whether that be readily available back-up or equipment, Kenny said.

Delays in updating carbines meant the three Mounties murdered in Moncton in 2014 were outgunned by their killer, he said. “They have to start supplying the manpower and equipment that will keep people safe.”

Creasser, who retired from the RCMP six years ago after a career that began in 1981, said the pressures are getting worse. “And I thought it was bad when I left.”

It’s not just a matter of pay and resources when police departments are competing for officers, he said. There’s also the matter of how members are treated, and their lack of a voice when things are wrong. And no, it’s not easy for the force to attract women when 400 or so of them are pushing class-action harassment suits.

Presumably that’s the sort of thing that might come up in collective bargaining, though the Treasury Board report found officers themselves are split on the idea of forming a union. A solid majority think doing so is essential, but a sizable minority are vigorously opposed. All are wary of police getting lumped in a public-service union, as opposed to one specific to the RCMP.

In any event, organizing the Mounties (the only Canadian force with more than 50 members not to have a union) is easier said than done. Reaching more than 18,000 officers scattered across the country is a logistical nightmare (though in March, the RCMP said it would be a human resources priority to “establish a new labour relations framework to provide members with the right to be represented by a certified bargaining agent of their choice.”)

Creasser said finding communication channels is hard. Members have been resorting to private Facebook groups to pass information unofficially, but even that excludes the large number of cops who shun social media, regarding it as a security sieve.

So there the Mounties sit, frustrated, waiting for Ottawa to do … something.

“There’s a very strong emotional attachment by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police toward the service they’re in,” Kenny said.

“There’s also a very profound sense of being let down.”

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