RCMP spouses and retired Mounties speak up over contentious bill

Bill C-7 contains changes to health benefits and excludes issues from bargaining table

By Alison Crawford, CBC News

Retired Mounties and spouses of RCMP officers say they are speaking out against a bill that could have wide-ranging consequences for officers, because members currently serving in the force are fearful of doing so.

The government introduced Bill C-7 in response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision last January that ruled Mounties should have the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. The RCMP are the only police force in the country without that right.

But the proposed legislation that is supposed to address this anomaly also contains contentious changes to health benefits and includes a list of issues that would be excluded from the bargaining table.

Ron Lewis, of the RCMP Veterans' Association, says the RCMP's top brass and the federal government pulled a fast one on serving members when they disbanded the force's elected staff relations program earlier this year.

He says that never should have happened while Parliament debates bill C-7 because now, officers have no official voice for their concerns about the legislation

"I guess you could characterize it as maybe unethical, possibly an unfair labour practice," says Lewis.

When RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson disbanded the SRR program earlier this year, he issued written instructions to former representatives telling them they "shall not communicate with the media, minister of public safety, Parliament, and Senate or the general public concerning any matters related to the RCMP."

The RCMP's code of conduct also discourages regular members from speaking publicly about anything political.

'Just shut up, do your job'

As a retired staff relations representative, Lewis says he feels obliged to speak on behalf of serving members. So do Keith Yendrys and hundreds of Mountie spouses who have formed a group called Families Against Bill C-7 for the purposes of lobbying the government.

Yendrys says spouses stepped in because officers have long felt they can't raise complaints with RCMP management.

"Their response is, you just shut up, do your job otherwise this is going to go on your file, so-and-so is not going to promote you and this is going to dog you for the rest of your career and we're going to transfer you to a place you don't want to go," said Yendrys.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says he has heard some Mounties feel they aren't permitted to speak out about the bill, but he's encouraging them to come forward.

"They should feel no such inhibition, no such prohibition whatsoever. If they have things to say to members of the government or to their member of Parliament, they are certainly entitled to say it."

No appeal process

Among the areas of concern expressed by spouses and retirees are two sections of the bill that deal with occupational health and disability services. 

The legislation proposes moving RCMP members injured on the job from an internal health services regime to provincial workers compensation programs. Goodale recently told a committee of MPs studying the bill that the current system has two serious defects.

"It doesn't have a proper independent adjudication process and it doesn't have an appeal process. In other words, it is strictly a management decision if it's an occupational issue or not. And that ought not to be a management decision, per se," Goodale told MPs.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison added, "All federal public servants currently use workers compensation provincially for on the job injuries and the workers compensation boards do have a lot of experience in police-related injuries because they also help adjudicate for other police forces in Canada."

But Lewis says there are wide discrepancies in what provincial programs cover, which could lead to Mounties being treated differently, depending on where they live.

The RCMP says members would continue to be eligible to receive 100 per cent income for absences stemming from results of an occupational injury or illness.

Lewis adds that members of the RCMP don't have much in common with other federal public servants when it comes to workplace injuries.

"Not only do you have to recover from your injury, but you also have to pass operational health, mental and physical health criteria, which means you have to be physically fit to drive a car at high speed, to carry a gun and to confront violent offenders," says Lewis.

The bill also excludes a number of issues from the bargaining table — including staffing levels and conduct, such as harassment.

That is of particular concern to Yendrys, who says he has seen his wife go out on shift alone with the closest backup 20 minutes away.

"These are basically the most important issues that the members have to deal with and want to have a voice on, and change to make it safer for both themselves on the job and the public," Yendrys said.

Big decisions on benefits

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie is a member of the House of Commons committee studying Bill C-7. 

"Part of the issue here is also determining some pretty big decisions about benefits prior to bringing in a new regime of collective bargaining and I think it would be appropriate to hold off on any big changes like this until there is a process that can formally recognize employees so they might be part of the conversation," Blaikie said at a committee meeting earlier this week.

His colleague, Liberal MP Nathan Erskine-Smith has also questioned why the bill would exclude discharges, demotions, and conduct including harassment from the bargaining table.

Lewis and a representative from the spouses' group are among those who will give their input directly to committee members later today.