How Top Mountie Kept His Job

For a man who's staked his identity to being the quintessential cop, Giuliano Zaccardelli sounds an awful lot like a politician. After solemnly apologizing last week for the Mounties' role in the sorry case of Maher Arar, the RCMP commissioner demonstrated the kind of rhetorical double-jointedness that would strike envy in a scandal-ridden minister. "I accept the recommendations of the report without exception," he told members of a Commons public safety committee, referring to a public inquiry led by Justice Dennis O'Connor. And then, having scarcely drawn another breath, he began quibbling with the conclusions he claimed to welcome.

It was a head-spinning performance, made poignant by the knowledge Zaccardelli was fighting for his professional life. The Mounties, after all, had borne the brunt of Justice O'Connor's finding that false information linking Arar to al-Qaeda had led to the Ottawa man's year-long incarceration in Syria. More damaging still were revelations from a meeting held in the Privy Council Office on Nov. 14, 2003. The RCMP, like other agencies, was supposed to provide senior federal officials with a timeline detailing its involvement in the case. Instead, the inquiry found, the Mounties' briefing material omitted enough vital information to be outright misleading - including the rather critical point that they had characterized Arar as an extremist. "Those who were involved in deciding how the Canadian government should proceed had asked for a complete briefing on matters related to the decision," O'Connor noted tartly in his report. "They should have received one."

That Zaccardelli survived that particular transgression is testimony to his nerve in the face of public criticism. This is, after all, a case of executives misleading their bosses. And deliberate or not, it speaks to his fitness to lead the organization. It also goes to the function of the state. More than a mere police chief, the RCMP commissioner holds the titular status of deputy minister, meaning he and his office are entrusted to provide complete and honest advice to the government of the day. By the strictest standard, he is honour-bound to resign.

Still, as other events bumped him off the front pages this week, it looked as if Zaccardelli was safe. The public safety minister, Stockwell Day, voiced support for the top police officer, and the commissioner managed to deflect questions about the awkward matter of the PCO briefing. "We were asked to produce the timeline within 24 hours," he said as the committee hearing wound down. "It was literally impossible for us to comply wholly with that request." Even opposition MPs seemed reluctant to move in for the kill. Irwin Cotler, the former Liberal justice minister, grumbled that the commissioner and his staff had more than a year to get their facts straight (Zaccardelli told the commitee that he personally reviewed the file shortly after Arar was sent to Syria, and determined that Arar had been "mischaracterized"). Yet Cotler stopped short of demanding Zaccardelli's badge. "The government should determine from the public record and the inquiry whether they believe he should resign," he concluded. "Mr. Zaccardelli should determine from the same record what is the appropriate action and whether to resign."

A disappointment, perhaps, for those who'd sensed blood in the water. But for Maureen Mancuso, a political scientist at Guelph University who has studied attitudes toward scandals and ethical breaches, Zaccardelli's survival is one more reminder of the limited appetite for accountability in Canadian public life. Outright firings are rare in this country, she notes. Rarer still are resignations based on honour. "What Canadians believe is that people in positions of authority may not be held accountable for the details of a scandal," Mancuso explains, "but that they have to be answerable for them." Zaccardelli has done that answering, she notes, however weak some of his responses.

The age of the person involved, and the nature of his position, also figure large in such cases. As a lifelong police officer with a remarkable 36 years under his belt, the 58-year-old Zaccardelli is in no position to admit his mistakes and resign in the fashion of a disgraced politician, then rehabilitate his reputation. "He's got nowhere to go," Mancuso points out. "He's in the top job in his field. He's got everything to lose and nothing to gain in taking responsbility for the RCMP's mistakes."

So now he's hanging on for all he's worth. While newspapers across the country were still calling for his resignation this week, Zaccardelli spoke defiantly of sticking around to set things right, apparently with the government's backing. He was unswayed, too, by complaints that none of the RCMP personnel involved in Arar's case has been disciplined (indeed some on the RCMP side were promoted). Most of the problems that led to Arar's ordeal, he said, have been corrected. For Craig Forcese, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in national security issues, that raises greater concern about the RCMP's leadership than whether Zaccardelli falls on his proverbial sword. "It's clear from the O'Connor report that somebody did something wrong," says Forcese. "If there was inappropriate activity, it seems only reasonable that discipline be imposed. It leaves an unpleasant taste in one's mouth that you could have such a definitive finding from such a comprehensive commission and nothing happens other than the RCMP changing its systems."

Forcese, for one, is looking forward to recommendations from part two of O'Connor's report, which are expected to include some form of civilian oversight body for security intelligence. With such a panel in place, he says, everyone in the RCMP - from the commissioner on down - would understand the consequences of spreading bad information.

In the end, however, the commissioner may be nudged toward retirement by forces that have little to do with Arar. "There is a blatant and desperate need for new blood in that office," one senior officer with more than 25 years of experience told Maclean's after watching Zaccardelli's testimony. The Mountie (who asked for anonymity yet stressed he does not have an anti-management agenda) was speaking of a host of issues facing the commissioner, not least the agency's refusal to explain the circumstances surrounding the death of four officers in Mayerthorpe, Alta. Frustration within the ranks over that case, he said, has been compounded by news that commanders had failed to act on irregularities within the RCMP pension fund in time to lay code of conduct charges. It now appears that any perpetrators in that case will go unpunished.

Freighted as they are with questions about Zaccardelli's true commitment to those he leads, the matters promise to tax every bit of the commissioner's savvy: it's hard to lead, after all, when no one follows. And Zaccardelli seems aware of the challenge. Last week, as the cameras homed in and Mounties across the country watched, the commissioner reminded MPs of the Arar case's "profound impact" on the RCMP, and spoke glowingly of the force's 17,000 sworn members. He then paused, the left corner of his mouth pulling up into his customary expression of sympathy and determination. "Many thoughtful people are struggling with the question of what is the appropriate role for a modern police force," he said.

It was, at once, a note of hope, a plea for understanding, and a naked stall for time. One more sign, in short, that being top cop in Canada means being something of a politician, too.

Maclean's October 16, 2006