At first glance, the decrepit building in Dillon, Sask., doesn’t look much like a working RCMP detachment.
The paint on the one-storey structure in the province’s north hasn’t seen a touch-up in a decade. It looks like someone took a BB-gun to the detachment’s front door — and a foot to the side entry.
The building has asbestos; an air purifier was churning away in a corner during a recent mid-July visit by RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme. The detachment’s wooden cells have been condemned — they’re used for storage now. Officers have to drive an hour without cell reception to a neighbouring detachment if they need to lock someone up.
Duheme was in Dillon to introduce himself to the rank-and-file and get their feedback on working conditions. Conversation after conversation between the commissioner and serving Mounties came back to the same overarching problem: detachments are overworked and understaffed, and recruitment efforts don’t come close to keeping pace with attrition.
“Our recruiting strategy, our processes, it’s what really keeps me up at night,” said Duheme told CBC News.
“I think we’re at a crossroads where we have to change.”
Duheme invited CBC to follow him for a week while he toured detachments across Saskatchewan and stayed at the RCMP training depot in Regina. CBC News covered the cost of its room, board and transportation.
Conversations between frontline officers and the commissioner were off the record but Duheme heard the same message from Mounties over and over: officers are exhausted and reinforcements can’t arrive fast enough.
“When I had a chance to visit a couple of detachments up in northern Saskatchewan and the conditions of these detachments, I’m amazed that we can actually get members into these detachments,” Duheme said.
“It just shows you the type of individuals that we have that want to work there and serve the community.”
Boosting recruitment is one of Duheme’s main priorities. His success or failure may set the future course of Canada’s storied national police service.
“Everything turns on recruiting, it really does,” said Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore, the commanding officer in Saskatchewan.
“At some point, the numbers run out and we just can’t continue to provide the service.”
Mounties failing to staff policing contracts
The RCMP is not the only law enforcement agency struggling with recruitment but its unique model — serving as both the contract police force of jurisdiction in most provinces and all territories and as the lead agency on federal policing files — makes its staffing problems especially acute.
According to the latest figures, the RCMP is falling short of baseline staffing levels across Canada, leaving detachments shorthanded and possibly putting public safety at risk.
More than half of the provinces and territories that use the RCMP for frontline policing are experiencing Mountie vacancy rates in the double-digits.
As of Feb. 1, 2023, the vacancy rate in Newfoundland and Labrador was 17 per cent. In Saskatchewan, Blackmore is dealing with an eight per cent vacancy rate.
Those numbers are among the RCMP’s worst in the past five years. The 26-week training program at the depot in Regina used to churn out troops made up of 32 cadets each. During Duheme’s recent visit to the depot, the number of graduating cadets came to about half that figure.
The Management Advisory Board, an outside panel of experts set up to give impartial advice to the RCMP commissioner, recently reported that the force’s recruitment problem can be described accurately as a “crisis” — one that could threaten its ability to serve as Canada’s national police force.
“If these [regular members] are not replaced by new cadets from diverse backgrounds and with capacity to serve, the RCMP will be even more challenged to meet its service delivery commitments under the provincial, territorial and municipal police service agreements, and to maintain federal policing capacity,” the board said in a report released in May.
Some premiers raised the alarm on RCMP understaffing when they met as a group last month.
“That almost looks as if the force is being wound down just through attrition,” said Alberta Premier Danielle Smith.
Duheme said that while the RCMP still protects public safety, individual officers are being forced to do more with less.
“You don’t have that backup, you don’t have the number of members that you should have in any given detachment to do the work that’s required,” he said.
Contract policing being questioned
The staffing crisis is driving a debate about whether the RCMP should get out of contract policing altogether.
During the commissioner’s trip to Saskatchewan last month, news broke that the provincial government in British Columbia had ordered the City of Surrey to continue its transition to a new Surrey Police Service (SPS), despite the new city council’s plan to go back to RCMP contract policing.
The recent inquiry into the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, which left 22 people dead in the spring of 2020, dealt a body-blow to the RCMP’s reputation as a provider of local policing services. The inquiry report called out RCMP short-staffing and accused officers of lacking both local knowledge and leadership.
“The future of the RCMP and of provincial policing requires focused re-evaluation,” said the report, released in March.
While the federal government is still deciding which of the Mass Casualty Commission’s recommendations it will act on, the chatter in Ottawa has turned to whether RCMP should get out of frontline policing in the provinces.
Duheme, who spent years as the head of federal policing before taking over the top job, is well aware of that debate.
“But right now we still have two key mandates, and that’s contract policing and federal policing,” he said.
Who wants to be a Mountie?
After 36 years with the force, Duheme had retirement on his mind when he was appointed the 25th commissioner of the RCMP, replacing Brenda Lucki, who announced her retirement after four years in the job. He has agreed to a two-year stint, or to serve “until such time as a new Commissioner is appointed,” according to an order-in-council.
While he awaits a mandate letter from Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc, he’s on a mission of his own to make a career in the RCMP more attractive to a wider range of people.
“We have to do a better job of promoting what the RCMP has to offer,” he said.
Part of that mission involves competing with other police services for recruits. It can take more than a year for an applicant to be approved to go to the training depot. Duheme said he wants to tighten that timeline.
“How can we shorten that, so they’re in the door, out in the field as fast as we can?” he said.
Another approach, Duheme said, is to give cadets more flexibility when it comes to postings.
Getting people to serve in remote places like Dillion or Punnichy, Sask. (a posting nicknamed “punch in the eye”) is a tough sell and it’s getting tougher.
For most of its existence, the RCMP expected its rookie officers — along with their partners and children — to go wherever they were sent. These days, cadets can request postings to the provinces of their choice.
The RCMP’s staffing problem isn’t limited to contract policing. The federal policing side — which investigates terrorism and other threats to national security, along with high-level organized crime and cybercrime — has been haemorrhaging regular members as well.
Mounties in federal policing are often posted to detachments to address gaps in provincial policing without being replaced, said Duheme. He estimates federal policing is down about 1,200 people over the past decade.
“You get into that push-pull where you need a resource, but yet the contract can’t release them because they’re not meeting their obligations. So it is a challenge,” he said.
The RCMP plans to launch a direct recruitment stream for people who want to work in federal policing, one that would send them through a specialized training program and skip the 26 weeks’ instruction at the depot.
Not everyone is thrilled about the idea.
Brian Sauvé is president of the National Police Federation, the RCMP’s union. He said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the proposed training program since he wasn’t involved in its development, but he praised the 26-week depot model.
“When Canadians … call the RCMP for help, they need to know that the responding members, in whatever scenario, are professionally trained and can handle any eventuality,” he said.
Who ought to be a Mountie?
But Blackmore said the RCMP should do more than reform its hiring and training processes — it should also reconsider the kinds of qualities it wants its officers to bring to the job.
She said the goal should be to find people who can de-escalate potentially violent situations — not necessarily those who tick all the boxes on the application form.
“I think we have screened out individuals who maybe had the skills that we were looking for,” she said.
“I need people who can communicate with folks. That’s the skill that we need.”
Blackmore spoke to CBC while travelling with the commissioner to view a performance of the RCMP’s Musical Ride at James Smith Cree Nation — a community still grieving after a stabbing spree last year left 11 dead and 18 injured.
She said one of her priorities is to bring in more recruits from the province’s 74 First Nation communities.
“Our Indigenous population is the fastest-growing demographic in the province. And we are unfortunately underrepresented in the RCMP here in this province,” she said.
Blackmore has launched a team to boost the number of Indigenous cadets. Instead of relying on some glossy ad campaign, she’s sending serving Indigenous officers across the province to speak with prospective candidates and help applicants in remote locations with their paperwork.
For Blackmore, it’s about putting humanity back in HR — something she said needs to happen across the organization.
“If he was here or not,” she said, referring to the visiting commissioner, “I’d say the exact same thing.
“I think we’re seeing the support now that we’ve been missing for a while.”