Leading a police force comes with challenges, rewards and tough calls. In this interview with Gazette magazine writer Travis Poland, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, former RCMP Commissioner and now Senator Bev Busson and former OPP Commissioner and now Senator Gwen Boniface share their experiences on the job and what they've learned as police leaders.
How did you decide on a career in policing?
- Commr. Brenda Lucki
- For me, it was a call to service to make a difference. Of course the RCMP is such an iconic and historic organization and that was my attraction to it. It offered so many careers within a career and I wanted to see the country. Nevertheless, it was really about serving the public and making a difference.
- Senator Bev Busson
- I was in the RCMP's first class of women so there really weren't any role models for me. I was finishing teachers' college in Nova Scotia and the reality that teaching was going to be my life just wasn't doing it for me. Then it was like a bolt of lightening one day. The day they announced they were taking women in the RCMP they were calling my name. I literally applied that day in the RCMP detachment in my hometown in Nova Scotia.
- Senator Gwen Boniface
- I went to work at a provincial park when I was 17 and there was an OPP detachment there. Although I had little interaction with the OPP until that point, I got to know the four officers stationed there and with their encouragement I applied.
Tell me about your first year as a constable. Where were you posted and what was it like in that detachment?
I was posted to British Columbia and I was supposed to go to a small town in the mountains. This was the first troop of women in the RCMP and the staff sergeant there didn't want anything to do with it. The detachment commander at another detachment said, "I'll take her!" Apparently, he was inspired by the aspirations of his two teenage daughters.
When I got to Salmon Arm, there were a lot of young members so we had great social get-togethers and worked very hard together. There were 12 members and you worked alone a lot. If you were going off the night shift, you often stayed hours later to do the midnight shift, at least until the bars closed. You didn't want to leave them [the other officer] by themselves. It was a wonderful experience. I still keep in touch with those members to this day.
- It was very interesting because I was a farm kid and they sent me to the north end of Toronto. There were two women in the detachment and a third arrived just before I got there. It was a very young detachment and the people I worked with in those early days were the same people sitting at my retirement party. I think that's a great credit to the camaraderie of policing. I was fortunate where I went. Some women in the OPP were not. Some went to their posting and couldn't find a place to live because they couldn't find someone to rent to them and it took a few years to get over that hump.
- We were an all-female troop at Depot and they decided that as many as possible would go to French-speaking areas. I couldn't speak very much French despite six months of language training and they were sending me to do plainclothes work in Granby, Quebec. My French was poor, but they were very patient with me. It was a good experience, but I always wanted to go back into a uniform.
Did you ever think you'd work your way to the top?
- I always kind of laugh when I see that question because at Depot I joked with my 31 female troop-mates that I was going to be the first female Commissioner. For me, it wasn't ever about promotion. It was about the work. When my sphere of influence and the ability to make change hit a wall, then it was time for me to look at something else. I remember when I was going to apply for Commissioner, I went to some people and they encouraged me. I'm just so fortunate.
- As I worked my way up and became Inspector in charge of First Nations policing, it was my sense that I wouldn't want to leave working in First Nation's issues. I hit my stride and loved what I did. When the Commissioner's job was advertised, I did the same as Commissioner Lucki and called some mentors to ask for some honest feedback. That influence convinced me. But if you had asked me that at any stage of the process, I would have said no. I didn't have the aspirations when I was sitting in recruit class.
- I never thought about being the Commissioner. I just tried really hard to be the best I could be at the jobs that I had. My first real wake-up call was when I got to be the Commanding Officer in Saskatchewan and then B.C. I realized how wonderful it was to have the opportunity to make people shine. After about six years as the Deputy Commissioner for the Pacific Region, I got a phone call from Ottawa asking if I would take on the Commissioner's job on a short-term basis. I was shocked and honoured and I was tempted to say no, but I thought this is something for me to do to help at a difficult time. It was a great experience to spend close to a year in the office and I am so grateful to have had it.
As leader, what were the toughest decisions or challenges you faced?
- Without a doubt, for me, it was managing a public inquiry. There wasn't a day as Commissioner when that wasn't built into my day. When I was Commissioner, I lost eight officers killed on duty, we had 9/11, we had the SARS crisis and when we turned over to the year 2000 and all the stress from that. But I'll say the really tough things are when you lose an officer; there's no doubt about that.
- We all think the same on some of these questions. It's the next of kin that I had to do when I was the Commanding Officer or the Commissioner. You're the one who gets the phone calls in the middle of the night and it was always the most difficult thing to deal with. Being the Commander when a member of the force has died in the line of duty carries huge responsibility to make sure the family has all the support and compassion possible. We all feel that.
Obviously, there's been some challenges. The first thing I thought of was the MMIWG [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls] inquiry and hearing the heartbreaking testimony. We offered an apology, but that can't bring a person back. For me as Commissioner, that started my Reconciliation journey.
The challenges of 2020 are well known. The issues that have surfaced continue to be incredibly important for us organizationally. Someone told me last year that "
challenging situations are an opportunity for us to do our best" and we're definitely trying. We've all been forced to find new ways of doing things, including how we connect to one another. I look forward to getting back to connecting with people face-to-face as we come through the pandemic. For the time being, I'm starting virtual town halls and it's exciting to connect again.
Yes, there's been challenges, but there were great opportunities for me as Commissioner to make some positive change, do better and be better. I brought in Vision 150 and we've been focusing on our people, our stewardship, our policing services and our culture. As Commissioner, I want to make things better going forward.
What's one of the most important things you learned in your policing career?
- I think one of the most important things I learned through my whole career, and especially as I moved through the ranks, was to never forget where you came from. You're not there to look good in a uniform or be the reason people have to show up for a meeting. You're there to make the people on the road feel better about themselves and be more empowered to do their job well. I think if you keep connected to that work, you can offer leadership that makes people realize you understand why you're there.
- What I've learned and what I look back on, it's all about the people. The people you lead and the people you serve. You can't forget who you serve in terms of how your work is perceived. I really pushed, even as a regional commander, that it's all about the community understanding who we are. For me, at the end of the day, it's about the people, no matter where they are.
You're both absolutely right as far as the people go. When I was Commanding Officer of the training academy, my last words to the troop when I'd dismiss them was "
make every community you're in better than what it was when you got there."
I've also learned to surround myself with people who will challenge me because I'm telling you, as Commissioner, you need to have those people. You have to be real and keep it simple and connect with people. I care about this organization and I so care about the 32,000 people in it. Every single day I work to make it better than it was the day before.