Stephen Maher: Either Lucki has to go, or Trudeau and Blair do
Public safety ministers and prime ministers are in the vote-seeking business. RCMP commissioners aren't supposed to be.
By: Stephen Maher
It is bitterly ironic that the first female commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police may have to resign for pushing the force to be more open, but it is hard to imagine that Brenda Lucki will be able to maintain public confidence after evidence presented Tuesday in the inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shooting.
On April 28, 2020, 10 days after a killer went on a shooting and arson rampage that left 22 innocent people dead in rural Nova Scotia, Supt. Darren Campbell gave a news conference in which he declined to reveal what kind of firearms the killer used because investigators in Canada and the United States were still trying to find out how the killer came to have them.
After the news conference, Lucki summoned Campbell to a conference call where she chewed him out for holding that information back, as the Halifax Examiner reported.
“The Commissioner said she had promised the Minister of Public Safety and the Prime Minister’s Office that the RCMP (we) would release this information,” Campbell’s notes say. “I tried to explain there was no intent to disrespect anyone however we could not release this information at this time. The Commissioner then said that we didn’t understand, that this was tied to pending gun control legislation that would make officers and the public safer. She was very upset and at one point Deputy Commissioner (Brian) Brennan tried to get things calmed down but that had little effect. Some in the room were reduced to tears and emotional over this belittling reprimand.”
If this is accurate — and a statement from Lucki late Tuesday did not contradict it, reading in part that “I regret the way I approached the meeting and the impact it had on those in attendance” — then it is hard to see how Lucki can stay in her job. Further, the jobs of then-public safety minister Bill Blair and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are also in jeopardy.
Lucki had no business chewing out any Nova Scotia Mountie that week. On a human level, her intervention was surprisingly hard-hearted. The force had gone through hell in the previous 10 days, clearing gruesome crime scenes, trying to provide services to grieving families, and mourning the loss of their beloved colleague, Cst. Heidi Stevenson, who died in a gunfight with the killer. To make matters worse, it was surely becoming increasingly obvious to officers that they were going to have a hard time explaining how they failed to stop the rampage. The Nova Scotia Mounties were in a waking nightmare, an experience you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Two years later, dozens remain off work, struggling with PTSD.
Campbell, who was given the dismal task of explaining the disaster, had just successfully completed a difficult news conference, sharing important details with the public for the first time. Instead of commiserating with him, thanking him for helping the force begin to account for itself, she chided him for not doing what the Liberals wanted.
That seems both cruel and surprisingly short-sighted, and it may cost her her job.
RCMP officers are not supposed to dance to the tune of their political masters. Everyone — including the many loyal Canadians who lay awake nights dreaming of the day that Trudeau and Blair are driven from office — should be able to trust the Mounties to release information when and how it is in the public interest, not in the interest of whoever happens to be running the government at the moment.
Lucki seems to have conflated the political interest of the Liberals with those of the RCMP.
The Liberals were then preparing to announce gun control measures to respond to the Portapique tragedy — a ban on “assault-style weapons,” which would make them look like they were taking action to prevent similar attacks in the future.
That is a political matter, not the business of the commissioner of the RCMP.
And it is anything but clear that the measures that Trudeau announced two days after Campbell’s news conference would actually make Canadians safer.
Actual assault rifles have been banned in Canada since 1977. What Trudeau announced was a ban on “assault-style” rifles, guns that look like assault rifles but are not capable of automatic fire. Even if you support gun control, this looked more like a gesture, a play for headlines, than an actual practical step to improve gun control policies.
Also, the killer used illegal, unregistered guns, which he smuggled in from Maine, so the Liberal announcement would not have done anything to prevent what happened in Portapique.
The shell-shocked people of central Nova Scotia were not calling for gun control in response to the shooting, and were cynical about the announcement. It appeared calculated to appeal to the urban and suburban voters crucial to Trudeau’s electoral prospects, not to the people affected, who are mostly rural people who see hunting rifles and shotguns as a normal part of everyday life.
Trudeau and Blair are in the vote-seeking business, but Lucki is not supposed to be. If Campbell’s notes are accurate, she was confused about that, which is worrying.
We don’t know how much pressure the Liberals were applying. They clearly wanted to make a big splash with their gun announcement, and it would have had more impact if they had been able to say that they were banning the very guns used by the killer.
Pierre Poilievre has called for an emergency committee meeting to look into the matter, and that seems like a good idea. If Lucki was clumsily freelancing, seeking to curry favour with her bosses, she needs to go. If Blair and Trudeau were putting the muscle on her to release politically helpful information even at the risk of damaging an investigation, they need to go. Either way, we need to find out.
And it would be just as well to get it over with quickly. This nonsense has distracted from the key information revealed at the inquiry yesterday, a report showing the RCMP did a terrible job communicating with the public about the shooting, holding back information for no good reason, in keeping with its long tradition of failing to properly explain itself.
The inquiry itself is likely only necessary because the Mounties failed to answer vital questions of public interest in a timely way, leaving grieving family members guessing about things they should have been told as soon as possible.
Testimony has already revealed disturbing things about how the Mounties handled the disastrous event, which, we must hope, may create the political environment where the force can be drastically reformed for the first time since the McDonald commission, which was called by the prime minister’s father in 1977.
In May of 2020, Darcy Dobson, who lost her mother in the massacre and helped lead the public campaign for the inquiry, told me that she hoped that something good could come from the tragedy — improvements to the force.
“I pray that they fucking learn something. If nothing else, they learn something because they made some horrible, horrible mistakes. I’m trying to tread lightly . . . but they dropped the ball in Nova Scotia.”
That’s the best we can hope for from this horror, that it becomes a mechanism for fixing the RCMP, which everyone knows is badly in need of fixing.
After Tuesday’s news, it’s hard to imagine that Lucki is the commissioner who can lead the force through that process, and hard to imagine that officers across the country, putting their lives on the line on the gravel roads every day, can have faith they are being properly led, which is the least they deserve.
Stephen Maher is a Nova Scotian journalist and novelist and a Harvard Nieman fellow.
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