Federal court to hear B.C. Civil Liberties Association suit against RCMP commissioner this month

Two-day hearing scheduled for Sept. 21 to look at long delays in responding to public complaints

Federal court to hear B.C. Civil Liberties Association suit against RCMP commissioner this month
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association lawsuit against the RCMP will be heard in federal court on Sept. 21

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association has a scheduled date in the Federal Court of Canada on Sept. 21 as part of its efforts to sue the RCMP commissioner for “extreme” delays in responding to public complaints.

“Enough is enough,” says Ottawa-based lawyer Paul Champ of Champ and Associates, who will represent the association at the two-day hearing, along with association staff lawyer Jessica Magonet.

Says Champ: “There is growing outrage about inadequate police oversight in the face of racial profiling, monitoring, and excessive use of force.”

Magonet adds the association wants the Federal Court to issue a clear ruling that the RCMP’s current commissioner, Brenda Lucki, “breached her statutory obligations to respond to complaints promptly.”

The group also wants “clear guidance” from the court on how the RCMP should discharge its obligations during the complaint process.

Champ says, “there will never be real accountability if the RCMP Commissioner can frustrate the complaints process by sitting on a report for years on end.”

In 2014, the BCCLA filed a complaint against the RCMP for spying on Indigenous and climate advocates opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline. The complaint was filed with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) – the RCMP watchdog.

But the association says that due to the RCMP commissioner’s “extreme delay” in the complaints process, the CRCC only released its report seven years after the BCCLA filed its complaint.”

The CRCC’s report on its findings, which pointed to gaps in the RCMP’s surveillance policies, were made public in late 2020. Magonet points out it came “only after the BCCLA’s lawsuit was launched last November.”

Magonet also notes that the court hearing is scheduled to occur the day after the federal election on Sept. 20, though she adds that the date for dealing with the lawsuit was set before the election call.

The BCCLA argues that delays have plagued the CRCC complaints system for over a decade, and it is time to hold the RCMP to account. It says the commissioner’s failure to respond in a timely manner has denied the organization’s constitutional rights and undermined confidence in the complaint process. The group points out that there have been three RCMP commissioners since the complaint was first filed.

The BCCLA is asking the Federal Court for “declaratory relief” — that’s an official declaration from the court that commissioner Lucki breached her duty under the RCMP Act.

CRCC investigators unsatisfied with the RCMP’s handling of a complaint typically send an “interim report” to the RCMP commissioner for review. Only after the commissioner responds can it release its findings and recommendations, a situation which leads to bottlenecks in releasing CRCC reports.

However, there is no statutory timeline the RCMP must follow in responding to CRCC interim reports. The RCMP Act says the commissioner should respond “as soon as feasible,” but the lawsuit asks the Federal Court to determine what that phrase means.

In 2019, the RCMP signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the CRCC — an intervenor in the case — to respond to public complaints filed with the agency within six months. However, that agreement is non-binding.

As well, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair had promised Ottawa would introduce binding timelines, either through regulation or legislation. Earlier this year, Mary-Liz Power, a spokesperson for the minister, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that “these delays are unacceptable. Canadians deserve police services that are accountable to them.”

However, in court documents filed earlier this year in response to the lawsuit, the federal government says the RCMP has gotten better at responding to complaints and has hired more staff. It argues the B.C. Civil Liberties Association’s case should be thrown out.

The government says in its court filing that between June 2020 and February 2021, 71 responses to interim reports from the CRCC were delivered.  That compares with 18 responses to the CRCC in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

One of the responses dealt with a 2013 complaint on RCMP tactics during anti-shale gas protests in New Brunswick. Another dealt with how the RCMP acted during the investigation of the 2016 shooting death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old resident of the Red Pheasant First Nation.

The Attorney General of Canada also argues against the idea of setting strict timelines for the commissioner’s response to a complaint. In its court filing, the AG says the “as soon as feasible” standard needs to remain flexible.

“For example, the complexity of the report, the need to consult internally, available resources and competing priorities are all factors that affect the time it takes the RCMP to respond to an interim report,” the AG’s office argues.

“Avoiding strict timelines ensures the commissioner is not hamstrung and forced to produce a hasty response which does not meet the statutory objectives of public accountability and transparency because of its lack of fulsome detail and consideration.”

The AG also calls the BCCLA’s claim moot since the report on the 2014 protest has already been released. However, Magonet says Canadian law allows the court can exercise its discretion in these matters, even if technically moot. “It’s often important for the court to do that in important cases, where the law is unsettled, and the issues are of public interest.”

Adds Champ: “Promises have been broken and excuses have been made for far too long. It is time for real change.”

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