When he took over the RCMP, Giuliano Zaccardelli acquired more power than just about anyone else in Canada
Paul Palango, National Post
Published: Thursday, November 13, 2008
During the summer of 2000, prime minister Chretien was looking for a new commissioner of the RCMP to replace Philip Murray, who was retiring after five years on the job. Chretien had not been a fan of Murray or the RCMP. There had been plenty of bad blood. The RCMP had been poking around in some areas the prime minister considered touchy, and Chretien had returned the favour by starving the force of money.
The various candidates for the commissioner job were invited to Chretien's cottage in Quebec to meet the boss. There would be no confirmation hearings or public examination of the candidates. Neither Parliament, the RCMP nor the public would have input in the matter. Since 1984, after the last reform of the RCMP, the commissioner had been made a deputy solicitor-general, appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the prime minister.
A leading contender for commissioner was assistant commissioner Tim Killam. Aline Chretien, however, had taken a shine to Killam's boss, deputy commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, the number-two man in the RCMP in charge of operations. He spoke French and Italian just like she did and he knew Quebec almost as if he were a native son. Born in Italy, but raised in Montreal, Zaccardelli was easily more engaging than the average by-the-book senior Mountie.
Zaccardelli was Aline Chretien's man and her husband agreed. It was an easy sell. Appointing a one-time immigrant to such a powerful post brought with it the promise of continued support in the multicultural communities across the country which formed a large part of the Liberal party's political base. That the prime minister's wife seemed to have a say in the selection process of Canada's top police officer, and that no politician or editorialist thought much about it, shows the world just how quaint a dominion is Canada.
A few days later, on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 28, Chretien and Mel Cappe, the clerk of the Privy Council and head of the federal public service, placed a conference call to Zaccardelli's suburban Ottawa home. Chretien asked Zaccardelli if he was prepared for a new challenge, to become the 20th commissioner of the RCMP.
Zaccardelli, an admittedly emotional man, felt his heart race as he accepted the offer. He noted the time: 9:05 p. m. He hung up the telephone and kissed and hugged his wife Bette. He would never forget the exact moment he got his dream job. Life would never be the same for them; it would become far more interesting than they could ever have imagined.
Chretien announced Zaccardelli's appointment three days later, on Aug. 31. It was greeted with enthusiasm by a majority of Mounties. With his 30 years of experience as a criminal investigator and manager, a degree in commerce and years of on-the-job studying and tutoring, Zaccardelli was deemed the man who could turn the RCMP around. Zac, as he was known, was seen to be a good man with a great record and not inconsiderable charm, the kind of leader the force desperately needed.
As commissioner of the RCMP, Zaccardelli became the chief executive officer of one of the largest corporations in the country, directing and managing the activities of 26,000 employees -- 16,000 of whom were police officers -- from coast to coast to coast and abroad. He had more power than just about anyone in the country. In some ways, he had more power than the prime minister. All the considerable powers of the RCMP Act were vested in his office. He could call for investigations, make and break careers and do pretty well anything he liked, as long as he lived up to the oath he swore when he became a Mountie to abide by the force's rigid code of conduct as defined in the RCMP Act. The one thing he could not do was anything that might tarnish the image of the force.
If the RCMP has been good at anything in recent years, it was using the media to promote its image. When bad news hit the force, it always attempted, often successfully, to create good news to change the subject, such as announcing its winning awards for management excellence
at the same time as it was being pilloried in Parliament and the press over its apparent incompetence. After a new commissioner assumed office, the marketing campaign to promote that person's profile usually began within hours. Zaccardelli officially became commissioner on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2000.
Five days later, he held his first press conference in Ottawa. What he had to say was both striking and alarming. He told the astonished assembled media: "For the first time in this country, we are seeing signs of criminal organizations that are so sophisticated that they are focusing on destabilizing certain aspects of our society. There are criminal organizations that target the destabilization of our parliamentary system." It was a stunning and completely unexpected debut. He wasn't talking only about traditional organized crime.
When asked by reporters to explain what he meant, Zaccardelli said he could not go into detail. One reporter asked if he was just fear-mongering. Zaccardelli denied the suggestion. "It is not fear-mongering in the least. I can't give you, obviously, specific details, but we clearly have information that indicates that criminal organizations, sophisticated criminal organizations, as part of their strategy is not only to maximize their profits through illegal activities, but it is also, in doing that, in maximizing their profits, where they can attempt to try and corrupt and try to destabilize situations," he explained.
Many reporters that day, however, knew what he was referring to: Project Sidewinder.
From Dispersing the Fog: Inside the Secret World of Ottawa and the RCMP by Paul Palango. Copyright © 2008 by Paul Palango. Published by arrangement with Key Porter Books.