The RCMP is apologizing for saying it didn’t have any records about its 11-month investigation into the death of Michel Vienneau, who was shot by a Bathurst Police Force member in 2015.
In fact, the police agency had more than 10,000 records about the Nova Scotia RCMP’s investigation into Vienneau’s death, which led to criminal charges against two Bathurst Police Force officers. The charges were dropped in 2017 after a preliminary inquiry.
More than two years after CBC News asked for the records through an access to information request, and more than four years after Vienneau’s death, the RCMP disclosed nearly 1,800 pages of documents and more than 1,000 images and videos related to the investigation.
That came only after an investigation by the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.
The RCMP blamed human error, saying the search for records wasn’t done properly.
“Although in the end it is clear that we did not meet our obligations, this appears to be a process failure, not the result of any ill-intent,” Dan Brien, the RCMP’s director of issues management and media relations, wrote in an emailed statement to CBC News.
“I am not aware of any intent to hide or suppress information on the part of RCMP personnel.”
No one from the RCMP was made available for an interview.
A ‘complex’ investigation
Minutes after Vienneau was shot outside Bathurst’s Via Rail station on the morning of Jan. 12, 2015, Nova Scotia RCMP officers were called in to investigate.
New Brunswick doesn’t have its own serious incident response team like neighbouring Nova Scotia. Instead, police agencies from other jurisdictions are often tasked with investigating police-involved shootings or deaths.
In this case, the two subject officers were employed by the Bathurst Police Force but worked in the now-disbanded Northeast Integrated Intelligence Unit. The unit, made up of officers from several police forces in the area, including RCMP, focused on gathering intelligence about drugs and organized crime.
Vienneau appeared on the officers’ radar that day when their supervisor, RCMP Sgt. Ron DeSilva, now an inspector, received Crime Stoppers tips that Vienneau was returning from Montreal with a load of drugs. The tips were false.
For months, a team of Nova Scotia RCMP officers pieced together what led to the shooting. They interviewed about 100 witnesses.
Lead investigator Larry Wilson described the investigation as “complex” and “exhaustive” in an email he sent to his team after the investigation concluded.
“The fact that the subjects of this case are police officers added another layer of complexity but each and everyone of you brought an unbiased and professional approach to your tasks,” Wilson wrote.
Unable to locate records
But when CBC News asked for all records about the Nova Scotia RCMP investigation into Vienneau’s death, the RCMP had a surprising response.
“Based on the information provided, a search for records was conducted in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick,” Insp. Richard Haye of the RCMP’s access to information and privacy branch wrote in a May 2017 letter.
“Unfortunately, we were unable to locate records which respond to your request.”
How is it possible that a division of Canada’s largest police force could spend months on a complex investigation into a man’s death but not have any records about the investigation?
It wasn’t possible because it wasn’t true.
Combing through records
The original request, filed in February 2017, also asked for records that detailed the process of sending the file to the Crown, which has to approve criminal charges in New Brunswick, and about the false Crime Stoppers tips that led police to Vienneau on the day of his death.
CBC News filed a complaint about the request in June 2017, suggesting it was inconceivable the RCMP wouldn’t have records about a lengthy investigation.
“We posed numerous questions regarding the institution’s processing of your request and the nature of their search for the records requested,” the investigation report from the commissioner’s office says.
“A second tasking was conducted and the RCMP located relevant records which were then reviewed to determine which documents could be released.”
An investigator with the Office of the Information Commissioner was tasked with reviewing the records, combing through nine CDs.
One CD had thousands of written records on 6,645 pages. There were also more than 3,500 photos, videos or audio records that were reviewed, according to correspondence sent to CBC News. Some of those records ultimately weren’t disclosed, for a variety of reasons. Some were duplicates.
The final package didn’t include any video recordings of what unfolded that day outside Bathurst’s Via Rail station. According to the Nova Scotia RCMP’s report on the shooting, no such video exists.
What went wrong?
While the commissioner’s investigation prompted the RCMP to disclose records it previously said it didn’t have, it doesn’t explain what went wrong in the first place.
That’s problematic for Ken Rubin, an Ottawa-based investigator and researcher who has spent decades using Canada’s freedom of information system to draw out information that’s in the public interest.
“I think they have to be held more accountable,” Rubin said about the commissioner’s office.
“You can’t just go from no records to 10,000 and say, ‘Oh, aren’t we wonderful. We got the records for you.’ No, what happened? Come on.”
In its explanation, the RCMP said it relies on people to search its records.
“In addition to our ongoing challenges related to the scope and volume of incoming requests, we occasionally encounter situations where individual searches do not identify all the documents that they should,” Brien wrote in an email.
“In this case, through the Information Commissioner’s investigation, we discovered that, for a variety of reasons, the document search was not executed properly.”
He said not all of the units that should have been asked to search were asked to do so. Others who were searching found no records, which wasn’t accurate.
“This situation has provided us with valuable insight into gaps in our system and we will continue to take every opportunity to improve our processes.”
A larger problem
Rubin sees the case as part of a larger problem with the RCMP’s access to information system.
Last year, the RCMP was wading through a backlog of unanswered requests, prompting the police force to reverse a policy that forced members to go through access to information to get their own medical or personnel files.
Earlier this year, an access to information officer emailed CBC News to ask whether the requester still wanted overdue records from 2017, noting the RCMP is “experiencing a high volume of requests with limited resources.”
“It’s common knowledge that the RCMP, at least in terms of access to information, has not been that well organized or forthcoming in the last few years and has huge delays and some other problems … they are not the top of the transparency bureaucracy,” Rubin said.