Public Order Policing in New Brunswick: 1972-2013

by Greg Marquis

New Brunswick has some of the lowest crime rates in Canada and public order generally is not thought of as a problem. This was not the case in the early Victorian era when Woodstock, Fredericton and especially Saint John were rocked by sectarian violence pitting native-born and immigrant Protestants against Irish Catholic immigrants. In 1875 social violence erupted in Caraquet over controversial provincial school legislation.  In 1914, Saint John experienced disorder surrounding a strike against an unpopular streetcar company.  In terms of public order policing controversies in the past four decades, events in New Brunswick have not reached the scale or seriousness of Oka (1990), Ipperwash (1995), the G7 in Toronto, (1988), Gustafsen Lake (1997); the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vancouver (1997); the Summit of the Americas  in Quebec (2001); the Security and Prosperity Initiative of North America meeting in Quebec (2007); the G20 in Toronto (2010) and the mass student protests in Quebec in 2012 known as the Maple Spring where more than three thousand were arrested. While doing research for my recent book The Vigilant Eye: Policing Canada from 1867 to 9/11, I was reminded that for a province of its size, and supposedly conservative political culture, New Brunswick starting in the 1970s experienced a relatively large number of political and economic protests that drew police attention.[1]

St. Andrews NB July 1 2016

RCMP Marching on Canada Day. St. Andrew’s, NB, 1 July 2016.

The most recent example was the protest in Kent county in 2013 against ‘fracking’ (hydraulic fracturing). This pitted First Nations and other environmental protestors against SWN Resources, the provincial government and the RCMP.  Despite conciliatory gestures immediately preceding the operation, in October 2013 a large force of officers, collected from three provinces, launched an operation to enforce a court injunction against the protest. Although the RCMP discharged no firearms and claimed that plastic bullets were not fired, they did deploy non-lethal ‘bean bag’ rounds and pepper spray and arrested forty people. They also employed aerial surveillance and a tactical armoured vehicle. Six police vehicles were destroyed by fire and a number of individuals faced weapons charges. At present the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) Against the RCMP s still investigating a large number of complaints stemming from that incident. As of 2016 the investigation had amassed more than 1 terabyte of written documentation and video evidence, collected from more than one hundred civilian and RCMP witnesses.

My current research on policing in New Brunswick explores the degree to which the doctrine and tactics of liaison policing, an offshoot of community policing that developed in the 1970s and 1980s, were adopted in New Brunswick. Liaison policing has been discussed in detail by DeLint and Hall in their book Intelligent Control which argues that rather than the traditional arrest-and-charge approach to strikes, rallies and protest parades, police services began to experiment with a less confrontational approach. De Lint and Hall are careful to point out that not all police leaders were convinced of the wisdom of ‘intelligent control,’ and that liaison policing was associated with a more intelligence-driven, militarized approach to public order.[2]  The  ‘warrior cop’ approach, which has troubled academics and social activists in the United States since the 1990s, has been most visible in Canada at mass demonstrations and is a vivid example of how police services supposedly dedicated to community policing are actually moving away from that model.

marquis cover

Greg Marquis. The Vigilant Eye: Policing in Canada from 1867 to 9/11. Fernwood Publishing, 2016.

The police operations I am researching, the Kouchibouguac National Park dispute of the 1970s and early 80s, the Bathurst pulp cutting dispute of 1987, the First Nations sales tax blockades of 1993, the Saint-Simon and Saint-Sauveur schools protests of 1997, the Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church) fishery dispute of 1999-2001 and the 2013 shale gas protests, all involved the RCMP. The federal force since the 1930s has been providing provincial policing services under contract and by 2005 was also responsible for eleven municipalities and fourteen aboriginal communities. When protests over resources and government policies occur in rural areas or involving First Nations communities, the RCMP, not local police, respond and, as my research suggests, usually act on their own initiative.

In terms of the policing of demonstrations, occupations and other acts of civil disobedience, there are three related problems when local policing services are delivered by the RCMP.  The first is that unlike municipal police departments, with which citizens often feel a bond, the Mounties generally are outsiders.   The second has to do with accountability and citizen complaints; although technically responsible to the provincial attorney general under the terms of its provincial contract, the RCMP does not fall under any provincial public complaints regimes. Complaints against individual members of the force can be made to the CRCC or directly to the RCMP. The problem here, according to critics, is that the initial investigation of complaints is handled by the RCMP, not an impartial body.  The third problem is one fundamental to police accountability in a democracy is that in the operations I have researched, public-order decisions were made by the police service itself, with little or no involvement by elected officials.

The RCMP response to the school protests of 1997 took place against a backdrop of rising economic and social tensions in the Acadian peninsula, manifested in disturbances in  Tracadie and Shippigan. As a result of these incidents it became standard practice for RCMP tactical troops (which were not equipped with firearms) to be accompanied by Emergency Response Teams (ERTs) equipped with submachine guns and assault rifles and automatic pistols.[3] The presence at the RCMP ‘special unit’ at Saint-Sauveur had not been requested by the municipal or provincial authorities but was the decision of a RCMP staff sergeant. When demonstrators refused to leave the road, the police fired tear gas canisters (which injured a number of people) and several were bitten by police dogs. At nearby Saint-Simon the tactical troop not only cleared the highway of protestors and deployed gas, but also pursued demonstrators and allowed police dogs to injure seven of them. None of the arrested were charged in the end and tactical troop members violated basic RCMP regulations by not wearing identification tags, denying medical aid and failing to file reports.  The situation was inflamed when, during a debate in the House of Assembly in early 1998, Solicitor General Jane Barry claimed that the Acadian peninsula and had a history of violence and civil disobedience and that the people who lived there believed that this was acceptable.[4]

In 2001 the CRCC issued its report on the handling of the school protests and criticized the use of the special unit at Saint-Sauveur (but not Saint-Simon), the inclusion of the ERT in these situations, the offensive use of police service dogs and the treatment of persons in police custody, which included denial of medical treatment.  Another problem was that the RCMP had mislead the media after the incidents in order to justify their aggressive and illegal actions.  The commissioner of the RCMP announced that many internal reforms were put in place following the incidents but the force made no attempt to heal relations with the two communities until after the report had been issued. This consisted of a general apology to the communities and promises that the RCMP would do better in the future. There was no mention that any of the officers would be disciplined or charged for their actions at Saint-Sauveur or Saint-Simon.

Three of the incidents I am researching were First Nations blockades, occupations or protests and one, the Kouchiboguac affair, had much in common with the former. The 1993 sales tax, the Burnt Church and the Kent County incidents, which took place in an era when relationships with Canada’s First-Nations were officially identified as a major challenge for police services, generated little goodwill with those communities.  This is particularly significant given that the RCMP polices several hundred First Nations communities. The RCMP appears to have used restraint during the national park and the Esgenoopetitj fishery dispute, although its true actions in that crisis has been overshadowed by the more visible and aggressive role of Department of Fisheries and Oceans officers. The responses to the sales tax, schools and anti-shale gas protests were heavy-handed and anti-democratic and in each case the RCMP seemed more concerned with justifying its actions than fulfilling the principles of community policing. The findings of the CRCC on the RCMP’s role in the Kent county protests of 2013 will be the real test of the degree to which the federal force had adopted liaison policing.

Greg Marquis is a Professor in the Department of History and Politics at UNB Saint John


[1] (Halifax: Fernwood, 2016).

[2] William De Lint and Alan Hall, Intelligent Control: Developments in Public Order Policing in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).

[3] Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, Chair’s Final Report with Respect to the Events of May 2 to May 4, 1987 in the Communities of Saint-Sauveur and Saint-Simon, New Brunswick (Ottawa, March 22, 2001)

[4] Canadian Press, “Solicitor general won’t apologize; sees Acadians as violence prone,” Daily Gleaner, Feb. 5, 1998.

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