The RCMP’s ability to respond to Canadians’ information requests is close to breaking point, Canada’s information commissioner says.
Caroline Maynard said complaints to her office show the RCMP is persistently unable to meet Access to Information Act (ATIP) timeframes for responding to access requests.
Moreover, she said, the RCMP has consistently failed to provide representations to her office during delay complaint investigations.
“The situation at the RCMP is critical and may soon be past the point of no return, unless senior leaders within the organization take action immediately,” Maynard said in a Nov. 17 report to Parliament.
The report said requests taking a year or more for responses increased 1,109% between 2016-17 and 2018-19.
Maynard said it’s vital the federal cabinet member responsible for the RCMP, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, ensures the force has necessary resources, processes and tools in place to start meeting its legal obligations.
But, Maynard added, “The RCMP commissioner and the minister both appear to accept the status quo and are only prepared to commit to minimal improvements without a clear plan of action or timelines. In the current context, this is simply insufficient.
“Canadians rightfully expect that the police force for Canada, in charge of enforcing Canadian law, will itself comply with it,” she said.
RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival said the RCMP agrees with the recommendations outlined in the Office of the Information Commissioner’s report into how it processes requests, and acknowledges the challenges in fulfilling its obligations under the act.
Percival said the force has put in place a chief strategic policy and external relations officer to address the systemic issues and also hired temporary resources to assist in handling unprocessed requests.
“We are also in the process of procuring new processing software and other information technology solutions to better address the exceptional volume of requests the RCMP faces,” Percival said.
Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman said the RCMP is coming close to a situation where it is abusing its own power.
“It is highly hypocritical that the agency most responsible for enforcing the laws of Canada is not upholding the law in its own shop,” said Holman, a former B.C. investigative reporter. “Any reporter who has dealt with the RCMP knows that they release what they want to release.
“It is a fight to get them to release what they don’t want to release.”
Holman called the force an agency long-known for secretiveness.
“They’re treating the law as optional,” he said.
In 2017-18, the RCMP received 10,199 requests. Some 3,289 were held over from the prior year. For the year, 6,051 requests were completed and 7,437carried forward.
For 2016-17, the force received 9,965 ATIP requests with 1,454 ATIP requests outstanding from the prior fiscal year; 8,130 ATIP requests completed; and 3,289 ATIP requests carried forward to the next fiscal year.
In 2015-16, the RCMP received 8,469 requests. There were 1,200 requests outstanding from the previous year. Some 8,122 requests were completed and 1,277 carried forward to the next fiscal year.
There was no explanation for the difference between the 1,277 carried forward in 2015-2016 and the 1,454 outstanding from the same year.
An audit found compliance with the law for responding to requests continued to decline, 78.2% for 2015-16, 65.4% for 2016-17 and 33.5% for 2017-2018.
The number of complaints is also increasing. That number sat at 140 in 2014-15, dropping to 120 the next year. It rose to 160 in 2016-17 and leapt to 232 for 2017-18.
In 2017, the force asked for 61 new employees to handle the caseload. It received 12.
The audit, released in March, said initiatives have been launched to improve effectiveness and efficiency but “implementation of initiatives appears to be reactive with limited documented analysis to support management’s decision to pursue proposed initiatives.” It said the RCMP “would benefit from the development of a formal plan to manage the implementation of process improvement initiatives and measure their success.”
Maynard made more than a dozen recommendations to strengthen the RCMP’s ability to comply with the law.
“The RCMP’s processes and procedures must be tightened and audited, to produce more reliable results,” Maynard said. “The entire digital infrastructure that underpins the RCMP’s access operations is essentially an impediment to those who handle access requests. Funding, training and staffing are significant issues. The size of the request backlog is shocking.”
Percival said in May of 2019, at the request of the RCMP commissioner, an internal ATIP Branch audit was conducted, examining processes and controls in place within the RCMP to support compliance with the requirements of the act.
“As a result of the findings, a detailed action plan was developed, and was approved by the Commissioner, to address key recommendations over the next two fiscal years,” Percival said.
Percival said over the next two years and with the support of the RCMP’s senior management, the ATIP branch will:
• continue to review its policies and align them with legislation;
• develop training tools and guidelines for its Liaison Officers in the various business lines and Divisions across Canada;
• conduct a strategic program review on business process improvement;
• refine a human resources strategy and structure to address its various needs; and
• continue to work with its government partners to share best practices and find improved methods to meet its demands.
That the RCMP is slow at responding to legal issues is nothing new of late.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) wants the RCMP in front of a judge for its alleged failure to respond to allegations of spying on groups and organizations and First Nations opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project.
The suit, filed in Federal Court in Ottawa against the force Nov. 9, names the federal attorney general and B.C.'s minister of public safety and solicitor general and further alleges information gathered was improperly shared with oil companies and the National Energy Board.
The suit alleges the BCCLA in 2014 filed a complaint about the activities with the Civilian Complaints and Review Commission for the RCMP, alleging their groups’ constitutional rights had been violated by the alleged surveillance.
While the force has committed to a response, it has failed to meet deadlines.
“The RCMP Commissioner should not be allowed to effectively sabotage the civilian watchdog complaint process simply by sitting on a report for years on end. Commissioner [Brenda] Lucki’s failure to respond to the report is a denial of the BCCLA’s constitutional rights, and impacts public confidence in the complaint process.”