Thursday, July 12, 2007

RCMP must accept real accountability

The Ian Bush case should surely convince politicians that it's time to bring accountability to the RCMP.
Bush was 22 when he was arrested for drinking a beer outside the Houston arena before a hockey game. He gave false name and was taken into custody. Thirty minutes later he was dead, shot in the back of the head by an inexperienced officer. They were the only two people in the detachment when he died.
The night of the shooting, RCMP officers didn't ask Const. Paul Koester what happened; they supported him, told him it wasn't his fault and advised him to get a lawyer. Officers testified at the just-concluded inquest that they considered Koester a victim. Ambulance attendants were initially denied access to the detachment. Bush's body was left there for 24 hours, allowing decomposition that made the eventual autopsy more difficult.
RCMP officers attended the autopsy and offered theories about what might have happened to the pathologist. He forgot to examine a visible bruise on Bush's thigh.
Koester, didn't provide a statement on what happened until 18 days after the shooting. Then, it was a written statement prepared with the help of a lawyer. He shredded his original handwritten notes after the RCMP investigators said they didn't want to see them.
And RCMP investigators didn't interview him until three months after the shooting. Then, they asked only the questions that they had provided to Koester's lawyers two days in advance of the meeting
No one in Canada - including police officers - has to answer police questions. But if the shooter had been anyone other than a fellow Mountie, would investigators really have patiently waited three months for the first interview? Would they have missed the chance to interview a person involved in a shooting that first night?
Most people expect RCMP officers to have loyalty to the force and fellow Mounties. That's expected. It also makes it essential that they not be in charge of investigating possible wrongdoing by fellow officers.
In this case, the RCMP investigators accepted Koestler's eventual statement that Bush attacked him. He was kneeling, the officer said, with Bush choking him from behind. He feared for his life pulled his gun, reached around behind his back and shot Bush in the back of the head.
But at the inquest, RCMP investigators couldn't demonstrate how that was physically possible. One of Canada's leading blood-splatter experts testified the shooting could not have happened in the way the RCMP claimed.
No one except Koester knows what happened that night. But most people would conclude that the RCMP did not conduct a credible investigation. Most people would certainly believe that things would have been handled differently if they had shot an intruder.
The RCMP had pointed to the coroner's inquest as an independent. But the Coroners Service took an extremely narrow view of its role. The coroner barred evidence on the RCMP investigation of Bush's death and ordered the jury not to bring in any recommendations dealing with the issue.
The RCMP public complaints commissioner will now review the shooting. But the review won't be public and it will be based on the evidence prepared by the RCMP investigators.
The case isn't some oddity. There have been other deaths in B.C. in the last few years that have cried out for an independent investigation.
The solution is clear. Ideally, have a specialized unit investigate all such deaths and other serious cases involving police; failing that, at least require an outside police force to conduct investigations into shootings involving an RCMP officer.
It's hardly threatening. But the RCMP is opposed to any outside accountability. Federal Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day is dodging the issue. Provincial politicians have no stomach for it.
We ask a lot of police and give them great power. But we also have every right to expect them to be properly accountable for their actions.
Footnote: Const. John Ward of the B.C. media section conveyed The RCMP attitude to public oversight. When Gary Mason of the Globe and Mail suggested the public had an interest in knowing RCMP policies on handling prisoners like Bush, Ward was clear: "The public doesn't have a right to know anything," he said.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Uranium mine proposals put Liberals in hot seat

The problem for nuclear power - and by extension uranium mining - is that almost everybody has seen some disaster movie about a meltdown that threatens life on Earth as we know it.
The few who have missed those films have probably watched Homer Simpson's less-than-diligent job performance in Springfield's version of the Three Mile Island generating plant.
Now the problems are heading toward the Liberal government, as companies keep talking enthusiastically about opening uranium mines in the province.
Worse, for the Liberals, the big interest is in a property about 50 kilometres southeast of Kelowna.
You might - perhaps - be able to get local support in the north for a uranium mine; there's not a chance in the Okanagan or the southern interior.
The Liberals haven't figured out what to do. The government has, with some success, worked hard at encouraging exploration and mining in the province.
Blocking a uranium mine would be taken as a negative sign by the industry.
But there are a whole lot of votes to be lost in approving a uranium mine. Neighbours would be unhappy. And so would a lot of people across the province with concerns about the safety of nuclear energy.
The argument that nuclear power, with no direct greenhouse-gas emissions, is a sound response to the issue of climate change hasn't yet won the day.
It's still hard to see how serious the mine proposals are. But the question is looking more real.
The focus is on the Blizzard uranium claim near Beaverdell, south of Kelowna. It's already part of B.C.'s mining history. In 1980, a consortium that included Ontario Hydro announced plans to develop a uranium mine there. The opposition was fierce and then-premier Bill Bennett introduced a seven-year moratorium, which lapsed 20 years ago.
Now uranium is hot. Ontario is committed to new nuclear power plants and China plans a massive expansion.
Around the world, nuclear is being seen as both green and increasingly affordable as oil and gas prices rise. Last summer, two companies bought the Blizzard claim and announced they would revive the mine plan.
Last month, a corporate-share shuffle transferred ownership to Boss Power Inc., formerly known as Boss Gold International. The company says the claim has real potential as a uranium mine.
It's hard to know how seriously to take any of this. Junior mining companies are known more for their enthusiasm than the successful completion of projects.
Still, the more the company talks up the mine, the more problems for the government.
Kevin Krueger is the junior minister for mines, named to cabinet when Bill Bennett resigned after sending a cranky and thin-skinned e-mail to a constituent.
It's the Kamloops MLAs first real moment in the spotlight, and he's understandably having trouble dancing the required two-step.
The Liberals don't want the uranium mine to go ahead, but they also don't want to irritate the mining industry by doing anything about it.
So Krueger confirms the government doesn't have any special policy on uranium mines. Companies can apply just as if they wanted to dig up coal or copper.
They'll need the same environmental approvals, but that might not be much of a hurdle.
But at the same time, he told The Globe and Mail that mining companies should be aware that there's strong public opposition in the province.
"People fear it, and that's a reality in B.C.," he said. "Whatever assurances are passed along to them, people either don't believe it or they say they're opposed regardless, saying we don't need it, we don't want it, and we don't want you to allow it."
Which sounds a little like a warning that while there's no ban now, there might be - after shareholders had invested, companies had spent time and money and the government had taken criticism for allowing the mines to move forward.
The project might just fade away. If it doesn't, the politics should be way more complicated than actually developing a mine.
Footnote: Last summer, the concern was over uranium exploration near Clearwater, closer to Krueger's base. Canada is already one of the world's top two uranium producers and Saskatchewan is home to the largest mine in the world.