Mounties’ missteps creating crisis of confidence in Canada’s police

<span>Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Hours after the arrest earlier this month of a fugitive wanted in connection with the stabbing deaths of 11 people, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police hastily called a press conference to announce that Myles Sanderson was “no longer a threat” to the public.

But as RCMP assistant commissioner Rhonda Blackmore described the four-day manhunt, she omitted a critical detail: Sanderson, who had been taken into custody alive, was already dead.

Related: Suspect arrested over Canada mass stabbing dies from self-inflicted injuries

It was nearly five minutes after announcing his arrest that Blackmore added that Sanderson had died after he went into “medical distress” and was transported to hospital.

Reporters covering the press conference were in disbelief. “I have never seen a more egregious case of burying the lede,” tweeted Siobhan Morris of CTV News.

After two mass killings in two years – both among the worst in the country’s history –the institutional opaqueness of Canada’s national police force has once again become the focus of criticism. These public communication fumbles – and a troubled legacy of scandals, lawsuits and policing failures – have renewed longstanding questions over the force’s structure.

In the days since Sanderson’s death, questions over police actions and communication with the public have continued to mount. National media have repeatedly pressed the force after the police said they would not release autopsy results.

And it emerged that – despite the fact that earlier in the summer an arrest warrant had been issued for Sanderson on unrelated charges – police do not appear to have been searching for him until he launched his stabbing spree on 4 September.

“In many ways, the RCMP has lurched from crisis to crisis,” said Kent Roach, professor of law at the University of Toronto.

Police have not publicly speculated on what triggered the eruption of violence in which Sanderson killed 10 people aged between 23 and 78 in the James Smith Cree Nation, an Indigenous community in northern Saskatchewan, and the neighbouring village of Weldon.

After the attacks, Sanderson remained at large for four days, with local communities on edge amid a string of false sightings.

As officers searched for Sanderson, the RCMP was itself the subject of a sprawling public inquiry over its response to another mass killing on the other side of the country, when a lone gunman shot and killed 22 people over the course of 12 hours in rural Nova Scotia.

The RCMP commissioner, Brenda Lucki, speaks with victims’ family members at an event after the mass stabbing incident that happened at James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, Saskatchewan.
The RCMP commissioner, Brenda Lucki, speaks with victims’ family members at an event after the mass stabbing at James Smith Cree Nation, Saskatchewan. Photograph: Heywood Yu/AP

In that case, police failed to send an emergency alert warning locals of the ongoing threat, and waited 12 hours to alert the public that the suspect was driving a fake police car. The public inquiry heard that two victims died in the time it took Canadian police to get internal approval to tweet a warning to the public about the suspect.

As the commission wrapped up this week, lawyer Sarah McCullough, who represents most of the 22 victims’ families, said the RCMP demonstrated it was fundamentally untrained, unprepared and unequipped for a major mass killing in a rural area.

During the Saskatchewan attack, multiple alerts were sent out to warn residents of the threat. The RCMP also worked closely with local police forces, something they were criticized for not doing in Nova Scotia.

“We definitely saw some improvements in their general communications in Saskatchewan, but it is disturbing there has not been more information about how Mr Sanderson died,” said Roach, author of the recent book Canadian Policing: Why and How It Must Change.

On Wednesday, Saskatchewan’s chief coroner announced that two inquests – for the stabbing victims and Myles Sanderson – would be launched in the spring.

“With the suspect deceased, there will not be a public criminal trial. Without a public hearing of the facts, it will leave many questions unanswered from the families involved and the public pertaining to the circumstances leading to the deaths,” chief coroner Clive Weighill said in a statement.

A jury in the inquest will only be able to establish fact, not guilt, but can also issue recommendations.

“It is my intention to have the jury wholly comprised of Indigenous persons,” said Weighill.

Due to a quirk of Canadian policing, the RCMP oversees both federal criminal law enforcement as well as operating contract police services to most provinces and municipalities. Only Ontario and Quebec have their own police forces.

People hold candles at a vigil remembering the stabbing victims in front of City Hall in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
People hold candles at a vigil remembering the stabbing victims in front of City Hall in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock

But that system is once again under scrutiny after the Saskatchewan murders, which highlightedthe RCMP’s deficiencies in rural areas and First Nations. The force has only one officer dedicated to policing the 2,400 residents of James Smith Cree Nation.

In wake of the Saskatchewan attack, the James Smith Cree Nation has discussed creating its own police force to better address the needs of First Nation residents.

The challenges of enforcing the law on Canada’s rural regions was underlined in 2019 when two teenage murder suspects eluded capture for weeks as they fled into the forested wilds of northern Manitoba. Police only found their bodies after deploying aircraft, heat-sensing technology and dog teams.

“The reality of policing of sparsely populated rural areas is something that Canada really needs to grapple with,” said Roach, who has called for a substantial overhaul of the force. How much are Canadians willing to pay for policing of these communities?”