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Cops Behaving Badly

'Elsipogtog 2013' Civilian Review Commission leads what may become largest investigation in history of department

by Miles Howe

[Photo: Miles Howe]
[Photo: Miles Howe]

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) -- We now near the two year mark since an alliance of New Brunswickers and Maritimers from all walks of life ultimately repulsed the attempts of Southwestern Energy to seismic test for shale gas deposits in Kent County, New Brunswick. The breathing room afforded by a general crash in fossil fuel prices, coupled with a limited moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, means that thousands of East Coast folks can now spend their summers focused on other endeavours, rather than signing petitions against fracking, attending marches against fracking, and otherwise fighting against fracking in their immediate environs.

If you were active in the Kent County protests of 2013, however, you may yet feel the residual effects of that year. The psychological impacts of watching – or experiencing – beatings, arrests, racism and lies at the hands of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – New Brunswick – can have a lingering impact. This is perhaps compounded when what you feel to be true – the knowing of the violence, the disregard, the shady RCMP behaviour - is coupled with a celebration of our police forces that seems to pervade almost every public affair. Rather than having what you know affirmed, you have been presented as the villain.

They get the medals, promotions and commendations. You get the charges.

You, if you partook in 'Elsipogtog 2013', have been identified by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service as an “extremist” who “converged” to opposed the oil and gas sector, rather than someone interested in preserving water for future generations, or in enforcing your treaty rights. You are probably on some list somewhere, for the rest of your life.

But take heart. If you have lost total faith in the RCMP after 'what they did' in Kent County, 2013, apparently you are not alone. Perhaps there is some solace – even healing – to come out of this yet.

The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) for the RCMP is currently “about halfway through” their investigation into 'Elsipogtog 2013', according to investigation manager Rosemary Morgan. And by the time they're finished, Morgan estimates this may well be the biggest investigation ever undertaken in the thirty year history of the CRCC.

“We received four individual public complaints from protestors in June and July, 2013. One of those was a petition of 245 signatories, although some of those were without last names or addresses,” notes Morgan. “It indicated a broader public interest than your usual complaint. So the chair of this commission, at that time, initiated a public interest investigation. Then we just kept receiving more and individual complaints and we added those to our public interest investigation.

“We started our active investigation in August, 2014. So far, two investigators have interviewed about sixty people. We anticipate about seventy more interviews at least – most of those RCMP members.”

The CRCC investigation has so far involved several town halls and large-scale meetings in Kent County, mostly, notes Morgan, to assure potential interviewees that the CRCC are not police themselves. They are, to be sure, a group comprised of civilian legal specialists and investigators. For Morgan, these town halls have shown her and her team a segment of society that has lost total trust in the police.

“It's a very broad-based, very interesting case, with a lot of people who are still very hurt - very visibly hurt - by what happened in 2013,” says Morgan. “From what I can tell, whether it's First Nation, non-Native, Acadian, whatever, there's a lot of people who just have completely lost faith in the RCMP. That does happen, but in this case it seems to be visceral.”

This social meltdown of the trust that we're supposed to simply blindly bestow upon persons in uniform has sparked an almost philosophical edge to the CRCC's current investigation. There are larger questions afoot here than determining or not Office A punched protestor B on so and so a day, and whether this use of force was excessive and subsequently properly investigated by the RCMP.

Kent County and the RCMP have had a breakdown. The CRCC is not the matchmaker meant to patch up the relationship, but it is tasked with recommending how the RCMP can move forward from here. Morgan's team, in asking personal questions of many folks who begin to tell similar stories of abuse in 2013, may well begin to ask the bigger question: 'What are the RCMP actually supposed to be doing?'

“One of the unique issues for this commission has to do with the role of the RCMP in society as a public order, policing, body, when they have competing interests,” says Morgan. “They're a police force that enforces laws. They're also there to protect the people. In this case we have environmentalists. We also had First Nations peoples, who have aboriginal rights and they wanted those rights protected. What is really the role of the police, in this case the RCMP, in balancing those competing interests?

“I think from that perspective, what is the role of police in our society when you have these competing public order issues? While it's not directly 'the issue' in the case, it's an overarching, indirect issue in the case. It's context. So it's one of the major research projects I'm engaged in.”

The CRCC, notes Morgan, isn't a court of competent conduct. It doesn't have the authority to 'make' the RCMP do anything it doesn't want to. It is not an enforcement body. It issues a report, which is sent to the RCMP commissioner, along with the federal Minister of Public Safety. From there, before the report is made public, the commissioner has an opportunity to respond. Then, the CRCC writes a final report based on the commissioner's response, which, along with the initial report, is made public. In the past, the CRCC has issued reports on the use of excessive force, on the use of detainment, and on the RCMP's use of tasers, for example.

When all is said and done, which may yet be another year, the all-important 'court of public opinion' will be able to leisurely digest the CRCC's report. Whether this potentially sobering look at police behaviour in Kent County, 2013, is a counter to the image of a burning police car - the proof positive of extremism bandied about the internet -  remains to be seen.

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