While flood victims in High River feared for their lives, their homes and their belongings, the RCMP was busy doing door-to-door searches and seizing only firearms.
And while the RCMP was carrying out what Canada’s top Mountie, Commissioner Bob Paulson, called last week “heroic work,” looters were helping themselves to the spoils — the very thing the cops said they were guarding against.
The legalities of the seizure of a “substantial number” of firearms, which angered many of the 13,000 residents, is likely be investigated at Paulson’s request. The RCMP contends it was acting in the line of duty, protecting expensive belongings from thieves.
Yet, while the police seized guns, CTV News recently reported thieves helped themselves to copper wire and pipes from evacuated homes. Reports over said some of the crooks were “quite brazen.” One thief pulled up in front of a home, telling the owner he worked for the town and tried to take away a metal filing cabinet. “And that’s what happened to a lot of people,” the resident told CTV News.
In another incident, a crew of thieves showed up outside a bakery with a front-end loader and trailer and made off with $150,000 worth of baking equipment the owner moved outside for an insurance assessment.
So why did the police zero in on guns? Why weren’t similar seizures carried out in Canmore and Calgary, where several thousand residents were forced from their homes?
Legislation gives police additional powers during a state of emergency to enter homes to check on residents’ welfare and ensure there are no safety issues. But in this case it’s argued the RCMP crossed the line and there was no justifiable reason for their actions.
Paulson wants to get to the bottom of the gun sweep and is asking for an investigation. “I am quite concerned by the sharp criticism that has arisen in the media with respect to the gun seizures from evacuated homes,” Paulson wrote Ian McPhail, the intern chair of the RCMP’s Commission for Public Complaints against the force.
Canadian Press reported last week that the top cop says he and a lot of Canadians have questions about the force’s actions in the devastated town of High River. “Naturally this is quite troubling to me, and I am sure to you, as indeed it must be to many Canadians who wonder what was going on in High River,” said Paulson.
To further complicate matters, the RCMP last week said the seized firearms can be reclaimed with the presentation of a “possession acquisition licence,” which is required under Canada’s gun laws. But the circumstances under which those guns were seized is ripe for a charter argument.
Critics charge the force was on a fishing expedition, a blatant violation under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — it’s called unlawful search and seizure. And short of caring for the well-being of flood victims, the charter must rein in powers that exceed what a state of emergency allows.
At the time of the seizure, RCMP Sgt. Brian Tobin said, “We just want to make sure that all of those things are in a spot that we control, simply because of what they are. People have a significant amount of money invested in firearms. … So we put them in a place that we control and that they’re safe.”
So in that safe place, how much jewelry did the Mounties store, or other valuables such as cameras, high-definition televisions, coin collections, laptop computers containing sensitive information — and other items high on the menu of looters?
Legal experts will argue that the RCMP is not above the law and in this case far exceeded the powers Canada affords to law enforcement agencies. Possible abuses under the state of emergency criteria must be at the forefront of legal challenges. Fishing expeditions are not allowed under the charter to determine if a crime has been committed. Search warrants are the proper procedure. Failure to abide by those rules means anything seized was done illegally and not admissible in court.
Paulson’s call for an investigation into the High River matter is commendable.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.