In a rare public smackdown, the Harper government has not only rebuked its straight-talking Commissioner of the RCMP, but also sent a signal to all top officials to strictly control their comments to the media.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has slammed Commissioner Bob Paulson's handling of gender-balance and harassment problems in the national police force in a sharply worded letter. The fact the missive was signed and leaked to the media on the same day reverberated throughout Ottawa, giving a clear sense that Commissioner Paulson was being reprimanded for going off-message in a recent interview about gender issues in the force. The letter was widely interpreted as a blunt warning to all government officials.
"He opened his trap, and he was put back in his place," said a federal official involved in the confrontation.
In the letter on Thursday, Mr. Toews criticized Commissioner Paulson for speaking about an internal report into gender issues at the RCMP with Postmedia News. Commissioner Paulson, in an interview, said there was clearly a bias against the promotion of women into the upper ranks of the RCMP, but the fact the report had yet to be published when he spoke, and his lack of a clear action plan, obviously infuriated the government.
"Rather than pre-emptively discussing this matter in public and proceeding on a piecemeal basis, I had expected to also receive a plan of response that we (you and I, the RCMP and the Government) could present to Canadians," Mr. Toews said in his letter, which was first obtained by the Toronto Star.
The report, entitled "Gender-Based Assessment," was provided to the media on Friday after the controversy had already blown up in public view.
The report said that a series of factors, namely work-life balance and mobility, affect women disproportionally and lead many to retire much earlier than their male counterparts. As it stands, women make up 20 per cent of regular RCMP members, which is far from the objective of 35-per-cent female representation in the organization.
In that context, men are more likely to seek promotions inside the force than women, in large part because of a "selection bias" that denies women the equal opportunity to move up the chain of command. According to the report, the members of the male-dominated hierarchy in the RCMP are more likely to promote candidates who are "similar" to them, which favours male members of the force. The report said that within the RCMP, there is a "belief that, for the most part, one has to belong to a 'club' in order to be successful."
In his letter, Mr. Toews said he found it "troubling" that the RCMP was still failing to recruit enough female members despite the organization's insistence on bringing a better gender balance to the force.
Mr. Toews is asking for a clear plan of action on his desk by Dec. 11, with milestones and target dates on a variety of issues, including recruitment goals for females, promotion targets for female members, a better system to deal with harassment complaints and a plan to improve morale. The RCMP has agreed to meet Mr. Toews's Dec. 11 deadline in a bid to deflate the crisis.
The organization is not used to receiving such written directives from Public Safety, although the fact the request was not about operational matters, but rather administrative ones, made it easier to swallow. Still, there is a clear sense the government wants to exercise greater control over the public comments made by Commissioner Paulson, who is known for his blunt speaking style.
Commissioner Paulson, who has been in his position for a year, has publicly stated that one of his priorities is to deal with harassment issues and quickly expand the number of women in senior ranks. "We need to increase women coming into the force, we need to increase women in the senior executive ranks," he said last year, explaining his goal was to have "more women in our decision-making process."
However, Mr. Toews and the Harper government seem to feel the RCMP now has to stop talking about problems that afflict the force, and start giving the sense that solutions are on their way.
"The time for review and report in relation to this issue has passed," Mr. Toews said in his letter. "Now is the time for action."