When officials in Ottawa hold a retirement party Thursday for RCMP Commissioner William Elliott, the occasion will be less remarkable for reflections on the Mounties' recent past, than for the question hanging over their future. Namely, who is going to next run Canada's national police force?
Whoever gets the job will lead an organization facing crises in public confidence and officer morale. Having long been kept in leadership limbo – Mr. Elliott announced in February he would not seek renewal – the Mounties urgently need someone who can heal rifts and redefine their mission in an age of government austerity. The decision is expected in several days or weeks and a change-of-command ceremony has been scheduled for mid-November.
A seven-member search committee of senior security officials and RCMP experts has conducted initial interviews, and assessments of short-listed candidates are now under way.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will make the final decision, is keeping a close eye on the process. "An announcement will be made in due course," said Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office.
Several police insiders suggest the committee is taking an especially close look at four candidates.
Two are RCMP deputy commissioners – Peter German, the Vancouver-based head of Western Canadian operations, and Bob Paulson, who oversees national investigations out of Ottawa. A pair of former Mounties are also well-placed – Vern White, the current Ottawa Police Chief, and Luc Portelance, a onetime intelligence official now in charge of Canada's border guards.
Other possible candidates remain, including Deputy Commissioner Line Carbonneau and Assistant Commissioner Bill Smith.
Observers say the stakes riding on the leadership of the 30,000-employee force couldn't be higher.
"How the RCMP succeeds or fails gives us a sense as to how security is being conducted in Canada," said Paul Kennedy, formerly an official who probed complaints against the force. "The health of the organization is determined as to how visionary the leader is, just like Apple would be with Steve Jobs."
Over the years, however, problems have been piling up.
In the past three years, the force has had to trim any fat it could find from its $4-billion budget. Now, the Mounties must further tighten their Sam Browne belts. With the Conservative majority government vowing to slay the deficit, detectives are already being pressed to figure out which types of investigations they can afford – and which they can't.
Meanwhile, the provinces, which pay Ottawa billions to hire thousands of Mounties on municipal contracts, will need to be satisfied they are getting the best policing possible. This is particularly true for British Columbia, now at loggerheads with the federal government over renewing a deal that keeps roughly a third of the force based in that province.
Labour issues also loom. Police associations, which will more closely resemble unions for rank-and-file RCMP officers, may soon form. Recent court rulings likely spells the end of the force's more-malleable "staff-representative" system.
And coming legislation will bring about a greater degree of civilian oversight and review, a concession to critics who frequently complain of lax discipline and officers running amok.
Back in 2007, the Harper government felt the Mounties needed an outsider to instigate cultural changes, so they turned to a career bureaucrat – Mr. Elliott. Yet his management style hobbled him by provoking an exodus of experienced RCMP commanders.
Mr. Elliott's informal going away party Thursday has been publicized on the police force's intranet. After he steps down, he'll be off to New York, where he'll be the UN representative for Interpol, an international police association.
"The Commissioner has indicated that he will continue to serve until a replacement is named and a transition is completed," said RCMP spokesman Tim Cogan.