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RCMP’s Bob Paulson sounds alarm on organized crime in exit interview

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson poses for a portrait in a 1956 RCMP Ford highway patrol car June 28, 2017 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Canada's top cop – a police commander known for his hard stand on terrorism investigations – is heading for the exit gates saying that organized crime is the biggest threat facing Canadians.

While Bob Paulson, the exiting RCMP Commissioner, acknowledged the possibility of Islamic State-inspired attacks is now an ever-present reality in Canada, he said such national security risks are "significantly less" of a threat than organized crime.

"It's something that we're going to have to turn our minds to, and when I say we, I mean everybody," Mr. Paulson, who retires on Friday after 32 years in policing, said in an exclusive exit interview with The Globe and Mail.

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Related: RCMP at a crossroads: Who will lead the charge in an age of sophisticated crime?

"Without being a fear monger, we've got to have political leaders understand what organized crime is, how [the perpetrators] get their advantage, how they corrupt individuals and institutions, how they get their hooks into people."

Mr. Paulson said the national police force has noticed a resurgence in outlaw motorcycle gangs, such as the Hells Angels, across Canada. Mr. Paulson himself is on the record saying he almost depleted the supply of federal detectives specializing in Mafia and biker-gang investigations to national-security squads following the 2014 slayings of Canadian soldiers near Parliament Hill in Ottawa and in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.

"National security gets Canadians worried, right? But I think, objectively, the risk is significantly less of impacting a Canadian than is organized crime in terms of … its corrupting potential in politics, its pervasiveness across all areas of commerce," he said.

While Mr. Paulson said Islamic State terrorism remains a "viable, inspiring movement," he said he had not been briefed on any "active threats" for Canada Day festivities on Parliament Hill.

His replacement has yet to be named. The Liberal government announced on Thursday that former ambassador and premier Frank McKenna will chair the selection committee and make recommendations to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. In the meantime, Daniel Dubeau, the force's most senior deputy commissioner, will become interim commissioner.

Mr. Paulson, who turns 59 in September, believes the next leader should be a Mountie.

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"I think it should be a cop from inside the organization," he said. "But nobody's asking me."

Sitting in the atrium of the RCMP headquarters in Ottawa's southwest a few days before his retirement, Mr. Paulson appeared unafraid to speak to his mind about his 5 1/2 years as commissioner of the 30,000-person force.

"It's a soul-destroying job," he said.

Mr. Paulson discussed the challenges he faced at the helm of a force that he contends is unfairly politicized.

"A government is arguably vulnerable to our conduct. And so many people see paths to the government through the organization, and that makes it very difficult."

He also spoke about the deaths of three RCMP officers, murdered by gunman Justin Bourque in June, 2014, in Moncton.

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The RCMP is facing four labour-code charges relating to the deaths of the officers, with one RCMP corporal telling the media last week that he considers Mr. Paulson "personally responsible for the deaths of my friends."

The criticism came after Mr. Paulson testified at the trial that RCMP management had concerns about the possible militarization of the force as it prepared to arm officers with high-powered carbine rifles.

"I am accountable for the death of those officers," Mr. Paulson said. "There's only one person responsible for their death. And he was charged and convicted of three counts of murder.

"I didn't kill these people."

Mr. Paulson said it's "speculative, at best" to suggest the officers would have survived if they'd been armed with high-powered carbine rifles. He said the real issue is community-based policing, going so far as to suggest that tragedy may have been averted had the officers in the Moncton detachment known their community better.

"We ought to have known who Bourque was; we ought to have known what he was doing; we ought to have been positioned to be able to intercede before he came out of his trailer," he said.

Mr. Paulson questioned whether the Mounties should be prosecuted under the Labour Code at all.

"I have views about … the public interest being served by this. But I mean, that's okay. We charge people all the time. I'm sure they feel the same way."

He also shared his opinion about the government's plan to legalize marijuana, calling it "very enlightened"; the Mike Duffy investigation, which he said created a "salutary effect" on the Senate; and The Globe's Unfounded investigation, which he said changes the approach to sexual-assault victims.

"The challenge for our investigators is to stop having judgment [of the victims]," Mr. Paulson said. "We don't care that you have strong feelings about how much risk someone exposed themselves to. That's not your job."

He said he supports the push for significant changes to the structure of the force, including better labour representation for members and the move to put trained civilians in key operational roles.

"Being a police officer, a basic police officer, it's not that complicated," Mr. Paulson said. "Being a successful part of a team that's doing police work, that's a little more complicated."

Calling it a privilege and honour to have served with the RCMP, Mr. Paulson said: "It's a great, great place. By and large, the people are extraordinary. They do extraordinary work."

He gave himself a mark of 70 per cent for what he set out to do but admits he's "come up short" on cultural change. "I say in fairness to everybody in the force – that's generational," he said. "So maybe I'd give myself 10 extra points there up to 80, because it started."

Mr. Paulson came into the job at what he calls a "terrible time" – the height of the so-called harassment scandal.

Last October, he made a historic apology – one he says he wrote himself – to thousands of female members for the way they were treated for decades by the national police force. He also announced a $100-million settlement for two class-action lawsuits.

"I was always, always committed to making it right. But not just by saying it. It took us two years to get our act together, to make sure we had a good understanding of the full scope and scale of what we were talking about," he said.

But he pushes back on some characterizations of the issue. "There was not a systemic problem of sexual harassment in the RCMP. There were some terrible, public, disgraceful, embarrassing cases, and lawsuits, and that's all true," he said.

When asked why it took until 2016 to make the apology, Mr. Paulson said, "You think it's easy getting $100-million out of the government?"

Mr. Paulson said he has met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a couple of times to discuss the challenges facing the force and what the government plans to do about it. He calls Mr. Trudeau "very impressive."

"I think you underestimate him at your peril," Mr. Paulson said.

He said the Prime Minister has shown himself to be a proponent of the force. "As he said to me once, 'You don't forget commissioner – you guys raised me,'" Mr. Paulson said, referring to Mr. Trudeau's upbringing as the son of a prime minister.

"I think this government has expressed pretty clearly that they want to be supportive of the RCMP, that they want the RCMP to succeed, and I take them at their word."

But Mr. Paulson himself won't be around to see it.

The father of four children – including a 31-year-old daughter who is a Crown prosecutor in British Columbia, and a three-year-old son – said it is time to make way for new blood in the organization.

"I think it needs a bounce," he said.

"I wish I was the fresh commissioner coming in now, with all the things that are in place."

With a report from Colin Freeze

Video: RCMP culture change on harassment likely to be ‘slow’: Watchdog (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Laura Stone is a reporter in The Globe's Ottawa bureau. She joined The Globe in February 2016. Before that, she was an online and TV reporter for Global News in Ottawa. Laura has done stints at the Toronto Star, Postmedia News and the Vancouver Province. More

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