OTTAWA—A senior RCMP officer who was shuffled out as head of Canada’s gun registry after publicly defending its usefulness is the latest civil servant to pay the price of running afoul of the Conservative government, critics charge.
Chief Supt. Marty Cheliak is being sent for French language training, just a year after taking over as director of the RCMP’s Canadian Firearms Program, which includes the controversial gun registry.
The move comes ahead of a parliamentary debate this fall over the fate of the long gun registry, which federal Conservatives oppose and want to scrap.
Just last May, Cheliak said the program – and the registry – “does serve a very real purpose and contributes to police officer safety and the safety of all Canadians.”
He pointedly warned that warned that scrapping the long gun registry could allow stockpiles of weapons – now automatically flagged by the system – to go unnoticed.
“Without the database of registered long guns, the door may be open to unlimited and unmonitored stockpiling of long guns for individuals and groups,” he told the Commons committee on public safety.
On Wednesday, officials in the police community were stunned to learn that Cheliak was being replaced since he didn’t “meet the linguistic requirements of the position,” according to the RCMP.
Yet critics said the senior officer is just the latest in a string of public servants who’ve been forced from their posts after running afoul of the Conservative government. They cite former Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh, who quit in the dispute over the long form census, and Pat Stogran, the outspoken ombudsman for veterans whose term was not renewed.
“Any time you speak out against this government, or you have an opinion that doesn’t fit their ideology and talking points, you either find yourself fired or shovelled to a corner,” said Liberal MP Mark Holland, the party’s public safety critic.
“It’s a fundamental attack on democracy.”
He said it’s no coincidence that Cheliak was sidelined just weeks before parliamentary debate is set to resume.
Greg Dionne, president of the Canadian Association of Police Boards, said he was “disappointed” and “shocked” by the news.
“If you don’t agree with the stand of the government, you’re going to be banished,” he said in a telephone interview.
“My heart goes out to Marty because he worked really hard on the long gun registry. To be silenced by the government is just shocking,” he said. “What upsets me is that the RCMP is supposed to be arm’s length from the government.”
Charles Momy, president of the Canadian Police Association, said that Cheliak had worked hard to improve the operation of the firearms program, which has a focus on firearms safety, and the registry itself.
“If we can improve the Canadian Firearms Program, if we can improve the gun registry, then ultimately the winners of all that are the public and the police,” Momy said.
“That’s really what Marty Cheliak has done since he took over,” he said.
He questioned the timing of Cheliak’s job shuffle, noting that he was scheduled to give a presentation on firearms safety to the annual meeting of Canadian police chiefs next week.
“Was it so important that he had to be on French language training this week,” Momy said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged the government’s opposition to the long run registry but insisted the staffing shuffle was made by the RCMP alone.
“This government strongly favours the abolition of the long gun registry for farmers and duck hunters. It is wasteful. It has been ineffective. That will continue to be our position,” Harper said Wednesday during a stop in Nova Scotia.
“But in terms of staffing decisions in the RCMP, these are made by the RCMP themselves,” he said.
Still, the shuffle means more trouble for the national police force, which is already struggling after an unprecedented revolt by senior RCMP brass against their civilian boss Bill Elliott’s “abrasive” and “verbally abusive” leadership style.
The Conservatives were forced to hire former CSIS director Reid Morden to do a workplace assessment.
Momy questioned whether it’s time for new leadership at the top of the force.
“I think the Canadian public is smart enough to see that the RCMP is in big difficulty right now. Is it time to bring in a fresh face?” Momy said.
“I think Elliott should be thinking about his future and doing what’s best for the RCMP.”
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