I don't for a second imagine that the head honcho of the RCMP is troubled by the gun seizures. He sets the damn policy, so it's not going to be individual cops who miraculously all decide to seize guns at the same time with no colleagues saying "hold up a second, don't be taking people's guns, it's wrong and it's against RCMP policy."Earlier in the day, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson requested that McPhail consider a "chair-initiated complaint." That, Paulson wrote, would allow the complaints commission to investigate RCMP actions in High River, "to assess if they were well founded, reasonably executed and in accordance with our policies."
In his Friday letter, Paulson said he is proud of the RCMP's community response to the terrible flooding in High River.
"I am quite concerned by the sharp criticism that has arisen in the media with respect to the gun seizures from evacuated homes," Paulson wrote.
"Naturally this is quite troubling to me, and I am sure to you, as indeed it must be to many Canadians, who wonder what was going on in High River."
The province's health minister is reassuring High River residents the flood-ravaged town's hospital will eventually offer the same services it did before the disaster.
But Fred Horne was unable to say Thursday when Alberta Health Services will reopen the facility's shuttered emergency room, surgical theatres and in-patient ward.
"We're going to restore the health services the way they were in operation prior to the flood incident," Horne said in an interview.
"AHS will determine how quickly and which ones they bring back in and it will be done in a phased approach, which is certainly reasonable after a disaster of this scale."
The minister's comments come in the wake of demands this week by the facility's medical staff that all services at the 107-bed hospital be immediately restored.
"We're worried this hospital is going to become a public health and long-term care facility," said Dr. Sarah Bell-Dingwall, "and that we're going to lose the acute care that we have been able to offer."
Ailing patients were evacuated as far as away as Edmonton a month ago when the southern Alberta town was inundated.
The provincial health authority has started providing urgent care services and immunizations at the facility recently.
And an AHS spokesman said Thursday that sick seniors will start returning next week when a long-term care ward with 75 beds is scheduled to reopen.
But Don Stewart could provide no timetable as to when the hospital would staff its 32-bed in-patient ward so it can again provide emergency care, deliver babies and perform surgeries.
"It is too early to say," Stewart said in an email reply to questions.
"Much will depend on how quickly the town recovers from the flood."
While the hospital primarily served the town of 13,000, it also handled some of the overflow of elective surgeries from facilities in nearby Calgary. In a three-month period prior to the flood, nearly 350 procedures were completed by the facility's medical staff or visiting surgeons.
Wildrose leader and High River MLA Danielle Smith said Horne needs to provide the hospital's physicians with a clear timetable quickly or risk seeing some leave town.
"They want to know when are we going to start doing surgeries, when is maternity going to return, when are our chemotherapy patients going to continue getting services at the hospital," Smith said.
"If you delay for months, it's going to change the decisions some of these doctors make."
While some physicians have to make the difficult decision about whether to rebuild their own homes and clinics so they can stay in High River, Bell-Dingwall said patients are also wondering whether to stay as they are forced now to travel as far away as Medicine Hat for cancer care services.
"It's anxiety-provoking for everyone," she said.
With AHS officials unable to provide hospital staff or town residents with a firm plan, High River has been rife with rumours the hospital's $17.1-million budget would be cut and portions of the facility mothballed.
"I don't know what incorrect information is being circulated in the community," said Horne, "but I can certainly assure the people of High River as their minister that we're committed to bringing back all the services and we'll do that as quickly as we can."
Despite Horne's pledge, some area residents said their concerns weren't assuaged.
Katrina Dodge, whose mother survived cancer after receiving chemotherapy at the hospital, is still planning a protest Friday outside the facility where she expects to be joined by dozens of people demanding the minister and AHS provide a clearer timetable.
"Our town is deteriorating as it is," Dodge said.
"If people don't know when the great hospital they had will fully reopen, they will hesitate to come back."
HIGH RIVER - Doors and locks were kicked in. Windows smashed. Muddied boots trampled through homes. Guns seized.
Now, more than two months after RCMP and military personnel forcibly entered hundreds of High River houses in the days following the June 20 flood while searching for residents, pets and other potential hazards, many homeowners are still left wondering, 'Who's going to pay for the damage?'"
"Homes weren't breached in Calgary. Doors weren't kicked down in Medicine Hat. Guns weren't taken in Canmore," said Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith. "So what happened in High River that was so different and why did the RCMP operate outside the emergency operations centre chain of command?"
On Thursday evening, Smith hosted a town hall at the Highwood High School on the "forced entry into homes and seizure of property" while the town was under a mandatory evacuation order after the deluge ravaged the southern Alberta town.
About 300 residents attended the town hall to listen to Smith and grill a member of the local RCMP detachment.
Mounties seized unsecured firearms from High River homes during door-to-door searches - to prevent the guns from being stolen or damaged - which angered many displaced residents.
The provincial Emergency Management Act grants authorities additional powers during a state of emergency, including the right to enter premises without a warrant and take property to "prevent, combat or alleviate the effects of an emergency or disaster."
Mounties have said they took the same action after the devastating fires in Slave Lake two years ago.
Smith estimated the damage - which includes broken doors, locks and windows, as well as muddied carpets - caused by the forced entries at roughly $2,000 per house, or $3.6 million.
She added that she's been trying to "keep the temperature down" in High River during the flood and immediate recovery efforts.
But one gun advocate invited to the town hall by the Wildrose questioned the need to kick in doors and smash windows, and seize guns.
Dennis Young, Alberta director of Canada's National Firearms Association and a former Mountie, told the crowd the RCMP's actions were inexcusable.
"Somebody should get in trouble," Young said. "If we had kicked in a door and high-fived ourselves for doing it, we would have been fired."
The crowd in attendance hooted and applauded in approval.
The High River RCMP detachment has said almost all of the 539 weapons taken have been returned to their owners.
But many homeowners are still waiting to be compensated for the damage caused by the forced entries.
Sharon Garlock said Mounties drilled the lock on her front door, damaged the door frame, walked through her house with muddy boots and, ultimately, confiscated several of her husband's rifles she said we're hidden in a bedroom closet.
"There are people whose doors were kicked in who had left their doors unlocked," said Garlock. "It very much feels like an invasion. They definitely went hunting, they knew they were looking for more guns."
She pegs the damage to her house at $1,000, and said her mother's home was similarly damaged.
Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said the RCMP has told the province it will be responsible for compensation for property damaged by their entry into homes.
High River RCMP said there were about 1,900 reports of damage caused by entry during the flood, but it's still unclear when homeowners will receive compensation.
"We have asked everybody who has had a damaged door to come in and report it with us, bring photos and estimates of the damage," said Cpl. Sharon Franks. "We're forwarding them up to our head offices and it will go through the civil litigation.
"I'm sure that once they receive all of the requests for compensation . . . they will determine what, and who, gets dispersed money."
Earlier in the day, Griffiths accused Smith, who represents High River as the MLA for Highwood, of "making political hay" rather than focusing on the real issues around rebuilding.
"It's laughable. It's a joke and she should be embarrassed by bringing it up," Griffiths told the Herald outside a meeting of cabinet at the McDougall Centre.
"The RCMP are doing the best that they can and they did the best they can in the situation. I am sick and tired of people like her going around trying to blame people when we're still trying to rebuild the community. It's f---ing embarrassing."
On Tuesday, Premier Alison Redford accused the Opposition of "sensationalizing the issue."
However, Justice Minister Jonathan Denis wrote a letter to the RCMP's provincial commander expressing concern at the time of the confiscation. The seizure also drew negative comments from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office.
The Mounties' conduct is also the subject of an investigation by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. A spokesman for the commission said the review should be completely and released by the end of year.
Smith called Griffiths' remarks "embarrassing", adding she felt compelled to organize the town hall and demand answers because many of her constituents are still in the dark.
"Instead of getting answers, I get the minister embarrassing himself by using profanity to criticize me standing up for my constituents," Smith said. "What we need to see is some answers here, make a decision and start paying people back for the damages so they can get on with their lives."
Some of the comments in the story are about the half a million rounds of ammo - I laughed at them.Documents obtained by CBC News show just how much pressure Conservative staffers exerted on the Mounties to justify why they seized hundreds of firearms from evacuated homes at the height of the Alberta floods last spring.
The emails paint a picture of a police force trying to juggle political demands with the "basic police work" of ensuring the public's safety in an emergency situation.
The correspondence, obtained under Access to Information, begins on June 20, 2013, when the RCMP asked for help from the Canadian Forces because there were roughly 150 people trapped in trees and on rooftops.
Insp. Don McKenna explained the need for helicopters and boats with big engines to power through debris-filled water.
By June 25, the Mounties reported having rescued 38 people, locating 327 people in evacuation zones after entering 4,688 buildings, 754 of them by force.
But what the RCMP found in some of those homes created another operational challenge.
An email from an unidentified RCMP special tactical operations (STO) member describes the operating procedures in place for those searches.
"We did not search for firearms and only firearms that were in the open/in plain sight were to be noted and secured. The purpose of the searches were for people and animals in distress."
The officer added that no STO members seized firearms from gun cabinets, whether they were locked or not.
In total, the documents show the Mounties seized 542 firearms, 93 of them coming from a single residence. When the people of High River found out, many were incensed.
On June 28, the Calgary Herald ran a story with the headline, "'Hell to Pay:' Residents angry as RCMP seize guns from High River homes."
It only took a few hours for Mark Johnson, the director of issues management in the office of former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, to send a link to that story to the RCMP and asked, "Is this taking members away from the work of disaster recovery?"
Subsequent emails indicate there were also some phone calls from the minister's office asking how many guns had been taken.
The inquiries did not go over so well inside RCMP national headquarters.
'A bit of a political issue'
Sgt. Julie Gagnon wrote to her colleagues, "They are getting involved in basic police work where we are only ensuring the safety/security of the population. Police do that kind of work when they go to residences that are unsecured. This is not taking them away from doing other things, they have to do it."
Her boss Daniel Lavoie asked why political staffers needed the numbers, as did Alberta's Deputy Commissioner Dale McGowan.
"I'm not sure we should be releasing the number as it is quite a statement with that many unsecured guns out there. A bit of a political issue I would think," wrote McGowan.
That was an understatement.
The very next day, the Prime Minister's Office publicly rebuked the RCMP by saying the force "should focus on more important tasks such as protecting lives and private property." It added that all firearms should be returned to their owners as soon as possible.
Looking back on it, Staff Sgt. Abe Townsend says the statement was not appreciated. "They acted within the law and in the best interests of the community. The negative comments surrounding the manner in which the members were conducting their duties was discouraging," the RCMP staff relations representative said.
The Alberta government had also taken an interest in the High River gun situation.
On June 27, Solicitor General Jonathan Denis wrote to McGowan to thank the Mounties for their dedication and commitment but also to get clarification on whether weapons taken from private dwellings were being stored or confiscated. He also asked if there was a plan to tell Albertans how to retrieve their lawful property.
Back in High River documents show the two officers tasked with documenting each gun and making sure it wasn't stolen property were under a great deal of strain.
On June 29, Staff Sgt. Ian Shardlow replied to a request to start returning firearms, "We are stuck at two resources to accomplish this. We have processed the guns from the first zone… we have a couple of concerns regarding the logistics of accomplishing this."
The next day Shardlow reported having returned several firearms, including $25,000 worth of guns to someone who he said was happy with how the RCMP handled the seizures.
There was one procedural hiccup though. Shardlow wrote that he had been unable to reach the Canadian Firearms Centre to obtain transport permits for restricted firearms in cases where evacuees were not returning to their flood-damaged homes.
Guns turned in for safekeeping
By July 5, officers had returned 164 firearms but something else was happening. While several residents continued to slam the RCMP for kicking down their doors and taking their guns, others in High River started bringing their guns and large quantities of ammunition to the Mounties for safekeeping.
On July 10, people had surrendered so many firearms at the local detachment that lack of space was becoming an issue.
Cst. Matt Allen asked for permission to rent a small shipping container."That would put two garage bays here at the detachment back in service. As of tonight's totals we have 109 guns in storage at the request of the owners. I anticipate this number will increase in the coming weeks."
One month later, the RCMP reported that 517 firearms had been returned, 94 had been turned in for destruction and 132 remained in storage along with 500,000 rounds of ammunition.
"The firearms in storage are made up of a small amount originally secured during the flood but the vast amount of them have been brought in after the flood by owners who have no place to safely store them for the time being," wrote Cst. John Rotheisler.
An investigation into the RCMP's seizure of hundreds of guns from private homes evacuated during last year's flooding in southern Alberta has taken some "unexpected" turns and a final report may not be ready until June.
The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP had previously said it hoped to be done by December.
"The investigation has taken longer than originally anticipated," commission spokesman Tim Cogan said in an email from Ottawa. "There has been significantly more documentation to go through than we expected, some of which took the investigation down a few unexpected paths."
The commission conducted more than 70 interviews during visits to the community of High River in December and January, and now a third trip is planned for March to do another dozen interviews, Cogan said.
"At this point we anticipate completing the investigation tasks by the end of March and are aiming for a June release of the final report," he said.
Cogan declined to elaborate on what was causing the delays.
RCMP officials in Alberta have previously said that as officers were going door to door looking for stranded residents during the June floods, they came upon a number of weapons in plain sight and became concerned they could fall in the wrong hands.
But the seizure of guns infuriated many residents and even prompted the Prime Minister's Office to say that the guns should be returned to residents as soon as possible. That, in turn, caused opposition leaders to criticize the government for meddling in the operational affairs of the RCMP.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson subsequently wrote to the complaints commission asking for an investigation to be opened. While the top Mountie said he was proud of his officers for their "heroic" acts during the crisis, he was also concerned by the "sharp criticism" related to the seizures.
Alberta's former justice minister says he was muzzled from speaking after a report was released detailing the RCMP's failings in seizing firearms during the 2013 flood in High River.
A press release was issued by Jonathan Denis' office in February but he says Progressive Conservative communications officials told him he was not allowed to hold a press conference regarding the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission's report.
"I took it right up to the premier's office and was denied," said Denis.
High River was the hardest hit community in Alberta's 2013 floods. All of its 13,000 residents were forced out with hundreds having to be rescued.
Through social media and word of mouth, already anxious residents came to realize the RCMP had seized hundreds of firearms, and in some cases, broken down their doors to do it.
A total of 609 guns were taken from 105 homes, some that were seized had been properly stored.
Outrage grew and even the prime minister's office weighed in on what became known as the High River gun grab.
The incident created bad blood and mistrust of Mounties by many High River residents.
The commission's report found RCMP officers improperly took the guns from the High River homes and blamed the error on poor leadership and failure to communicate with the public.
Denis, a registered firearms owner himself, spoke to a justice studies class at Bow Valley College on Friday, explaining he doesn't know why he wasn't allowed to comment on the report but called it "the wrong decision."
The report made 10 recommendations including creating a national crisis communications handbook, guidelines for the seizure of firearms, ammunition and contraband during a disaster and special forms to ensure better note-taking.
But it's still unclear if any have been implemented - and that's another of Denis' criticisms.
"This should not be a report you can simply leave on the shelf," he said. "There should be some accountability to all Canadians because we don't know when the next disaster will be."
The RCMP were contacted for comment Friday morning but have not responded with any information.