Last year’s RCMP pepper-spraying of several Sechelt band infants, youths, and elders was "regrettable" but "appropriate in the circumstances", according to a police report obtained by the Georgia Straight. Then-chief Stan Dixon laid a complaint into the July 2007 incident with the Sunshine Coast RCMP detachment. Of the four allegations of misconduct the RCMP looked into—improper use of force, improper attitude, irregularity in procedure, and a driving irregularity—the investigation cleared the officers of every one, according to the 89-page report.
To combat any perceptions of unfairness in such cases, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP had earlier that year introduced an "independent observer pilot project". In this case, after a request from the Sechelt band, First Nations Summit grand chief Edward John observed.
He said he’ll never do it again.
"You have the picture of that little baby on the front pages of the papers, and his eyes bloodshot from pepper spray," he told the Straight in a phone interview. "I don’t see how the report addressed this in any significant way, you know, so it’s troubling"
John noted that neither he nor his co-observer, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs grand chief Stewart Phillip, were able to ask questions or contribute to the deliberations.
"They [the RCMP] control the recommendations," John said. "They control the content of the report, and they choose to include what they want to at their discretion. So I don’t know if it provides for a high degree of confidence. I thought there was some reason for the complaints. And to find out now that those complaints are largely dismissed [is disappointing]."
This case, and how it was handled by the RCMP, "cries out for" a truly independent body—perhaps even a First Nations body—to investigate misconduct allegations against Canada’s federal police force, John argued.
On July 2, 2007, about 75 band members celebrated a youth soccer victory with a "parade" of pickup trucks and cars. The report stated that 10 youth stood in the back of one touring pickup, cheering. Local RCMP members tried to stop the parade using sirens, but the drivers didn’t pull over immediately. When they did, and the RCMP subsequently handcuffed and arrested driver and coach Troy Mayers on two counts of obstructing a police officer, the report notes, a confrontation ensued. An officer shot pepper spray into the crowd, and Mayer’s six-month-old son and wife were hit by the spray.
In a written statement for the investigation, Cpl. Max Fossum recalled: "The crowd was combative and I feared that they would start to fight the members [of the RCMP]. As soon as I sprayed Mayers, the male in the orange shirt broke through the members that were trying to hold the crowd away. The male was combative and he was sprayed. The female holding the baby was the same female I told to back off prior to pepper spraying Mayers. She had not backed off and went around the members. She tried to hit me with her left hand while holding the baby. She was sprayed."
The "female holding the baby" was Shannon Phillips, Mayers’s wife. A paraphrase of her statement included in the report states: "Shannon said that when she asked the older officer in plainclothes what they were doing, he straight-armed [pushed] her. She said that she had stumbled back and hit a red van that was behind her. She had been holding her son, Kaeden, in her arms. She was trying to get back up when she got pepper sprayed in her face."
Several witnesses interviewed in the report noted that this kind of parade is common in Sechelt and has a history dating back more than two decades. The RCMP’s only direct criticism of the officers was that they were unaware of the parade tradition.
The RCMP have an obligation to protect people’s safety, according to Joel Johnston, a Vancouver police officer and the province’s use-of-force coordinator. But what most citizens don’t understand, he told the Straight, is that the use of force is necessary less than one percent of the time—but then it’s really necessary. "Say that pickup truck had popped onto a curb and pitched one of those kids out," he said, "and they landed on their head on the curb or the asphalt roadway. Those officers would have been held to account for why they didn’t do their job."
Pepper spray, Johnston said, is a good choice for crowd control. He is "absolutely troubled" that the spray hit the infants and children, he stressed, but said that, ultimately, the parents put their children into an unsafe situation: allowing them to ride, illegally, in the back of a pickup. As for public perceptions of the Sechelt incident, he thinks they’re skewed. In his version: "A couple of people unfortunately exercised the use of their children to shield themselves from pepper spray, and it suddenly turned into a story of the RCMP pepper-spraying children and toddlers and so on, when in fact it was really a police officer trying to stop unsafe behaviour that he in fact is sworn to do as part of his job."
Paul Palango, who has spent much of his career reporting on the Mounties, heartily disagrees. The journalist’s latest book, Dispersing the Fog: Inside the Secret World of Ottawa and the RCMP (due for release in October), delves into the RCMP’s self-policing challenges.
"This is a poorly trained police force," he told the Straight in a phone interview from Chester Basin, Nova Scotia. "It’s underfinanced, it’s undersupervised, and it’s largely unaccountable. You can’t expect to get any satisfaction from a complaint with the force."
The RCMP, Palango said, is not in touch with the communities it serves, the traditions of those communities, and so its officers don’t exercise suitable discretion. Palango called observer programs such as the one Grand Chief John was a part of, "a game". He thinks they’re a smokescreen, and that police forces will always find a way around civilian oversight mechanisms. What Canada needs, he said, is a system like the Police Integrity Commission in New South Wales, Australia, a truly independent body overseen by the state parliament. In B.C., Palango said, the local RCMP should at the very least be accountable to B.C.’s solicitor general, rather than to Ottawa.
The final comments of the RCMP report describe the episode as "regrettable" and "a well-meaning attempt to deal with road safety", which "quickly degenerated into a situation which placed police officers in danger, and forced other police officers to respond in an emergency fashion."