Monday, February 11, 2008

Mayerthorpe: The Failings of Canadian Justice

Billed as “an account of the events leading up to the RCMP massacre in Alberta in March, 2005” wikipedia had already updated files yesterday to reflect the airing of the TV movie ‘Mayerthorpe’ last night.

March 3, 2005. It should have been like any other day in a small, rural community in Alberta. Winter waning, spring on its way. Kids playing hockey, school plays, the routine interactions with friends, family and neighbours.

Safe communities. This is Canada, after all. We don’t have the same kind of gun and drug problems the US has. No, no, we’re too nice for serious crime…


James Roszko had faced 44 criminal charges in his life. He was 46 years old. He was a known pedophile, possessed illegal weapons. Believed to have threatened witnesses, ten people committed perjury or failed to testify against him in court, resulting in acquittals on serious offenses.

He’d served just 32 months in prison in his lifetime, despite his history.

Despite being known to rape boys.

The incident began on March 2. Bailiffs were attempting to repossess a truck and Roszko fled in the vehicle after releasing his dogs. RCMP officers were called in to provide assistance. With a warrant for seizure in place they entered the property and discovered a chop shop and grow-op, providing them with enough evidence for a further warrant.

And they began cataloguing and removing the evidence. Roszko was now a wanted man, known to be armed and dangerous.

The farm was monitored overnight by a small group of RCMP officers. However, their numbers were insufficient to completely secure a sprawling 200 hectare farm in rural Alberta.

They were unaware that Roszko had abandoned the truck and returned to the property.

He had a semi-automatic assault rifle in his possession, along with other weapons.

Four constables, the youngest 25 years old, the oldest 32. One engaged, planning a wedding. Another with a young son, wife expecting another child.

They entered the Quonset.

Roszko opened fire, killing all four of them. Officers outside the Quonset were also shot at, and returned fire. Roszko withdrew inside the Quonset and ultimately took his own life.

I watched the movie on TV last night. For those who saw it, you saw a lot of Sandra territory. Filmed in Irricana and Cochrane, it was filmed in the community that neighbours mine, and the community where I was married. There’s something unsettling about seeing places I know well used as the backdrop for telling this story…

Something that reminds you that it could happen anywhere.

The article in The Toronto Star reminds us that the movie hasn’t tried to probe any potential failings of the RCMP or to assign responsibility for what happened.

It’s simply an accounting of the events that led up to the deaths of four young men who stood on guard for this country, for their community.

We always try to find the good in tragedy. The Marijuana Party had just backed the Liberals in an attempt to push a decriminalization bill through Parliament. The bill was shelved, the Liberals defeated and the Conservatives were opposed to decriminalization.

But what else has changed?

A New Brunswick woman who burned and dismembered the body of her newborn baby will serve two months of house arrest as part of a 14-month conditional sentence handed down Friday by a judge.

14 months. Two months house arrest.

A mother's worst fears were realized last week when a judge granted custody of her son to his father who is a registered sex offender.

I love my country. I am proud to be Canadian.

But I’m not quite so proud when I see news stories like these. It is a dishonour to the sacrifice of these four men, and so many others who risk their lives every day to serve and protect. We place the rights of criminals ahead of victims. We fail to give our officers the back-up and resources they need in order to give them the greatest chance of coming back from serious calls alive.

Just ask the families of those young men on solo patrol, shot and killed.

Although part of me felt uneasy about the initial plans for a TV movie about Mayerthorpe – felt it could sensationalize a tragedy in a way that rang hollow, as though it was only about ratings – I felt the movie pieced together the events and the background of Roszko in a compelling way that enabled viewers to understand what had happened.

And the ultimate senselessness of it all.

I was already writing about the RCMP before Mayerthorpe. I had actually done research with officers stationed in Bowden, where Roszko went to jail (again, not far from where I live).

One of the officers who gave me background told me they’d been on the team responding after the shooting. The words were few but the feelings ran deep.

A wound that will never truly heal.

As far as I’m concerned the RCMP and our soldiers are national heroes we take for granted. As a country, as citizens, we owe them such a debt of gratitude that can never be properly repaid, for the risks they take and the sacrifices they make. I write about the RCMP and I don’t present them as perfect, but that isn’t because I don’t respect them. It’s because I feel that so often, we fail our police by not providing them with adequate resources in order to perform their jobs safely. The result is frustration, mistakes…

The kinds of things that contributed to what happened in Mayerthorpe.

I won’t blame the RCMP for it. I will blame our government. As a society we need to say that enough is enough. It’s unacceptable for known criminals to get off on technicalities. It’s unacceptable that we can’t provide adequate protection to witnesses so that they feel safe testifying.

It’s unacceptable that officers be sent on serious calls while riding solo.

We need to demand that our laws change to protect those who take the risk every day to make our communities safer for us.

Then, and only then, will we really be able to find the good in the tragedy of what happened almost three years ago in a community not so different from this one, not so far north of here.

(Photo taken Canada Day in Kananaskis four years ago. My nephew Athaniel and niece Arriel pose with an RCMP officer.)


Graham Powell said...

All four of those policemen were younger than I am.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I know. It's shocking isn't it?

John McFetridge said...

You're absolutely right, Sandra, in this country we don't give our police forces anywhere near the kind of resources they need -- and then our justice simply makes it worse.

I suppose a small part of this is the fact that we Canadians have believed our own very slanted press for a long time, liking the 'nice' and 'peaceful' image too much, in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

We shouldn't be ashamed that there are bad people among us, but we should be ashamed that we pretend there aren't.

I think things like you (and me) writing crime fiction set in Canada actually helps a tiny, tiny bit.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree with you John. Believing the lie, that bad things don't happen here, only adds to the problems.

Our police officers need to be protected. We need to stop being so stingy that we don't give adequate back-up. We need to have laws in place that ensure citizens are protected from criminals, not the other way around.

I'm sure you feel it, especially with RCMP officers in the family John.

RAC said...

My dad was a cop and was nearly killed in the line of duty on several occasions. These tragedies always get to me, no matter where in the world they occur.