Alberta government feels the heat over High River gun seizures during June flood

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Residents of High River, angry about gun seizures in their town during the flood emergency, grilled members of the RCMP about it on Thursday night.

There are plenty of things for politicians to hash out in the wake of massive flooding that hit southern Alberta last June.

Rebuilding will cost billions of dollars, much of it borne by taxpayers. And then there's the question of whether some areas now should be off limits to development.

But the issue generating as much, if not more heat as those weighty matters is the RCMP's decision to remove guns from evacuated homes in High River after most of the town was inundated by flood waters.

What seems on the surface to be a prudent move by the police to ensure firearms aren't stolen from vacant houses has turned into a surprisingly fierce debate about alleged RCMP over-reach.

Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths may have crossed a rhetorical red line when he he used a familiar four-letter word beginning with F to describe official opposition criticism of police actions.

[ Related: RCMP to be investigated over guns seized from High River flood zone ]

Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith, who lives in High River and represents the area, hosted a town hall meeting for High River residents Thursday night to discuss what she called "the forced entry into private residences and the seizure of private property such as firearms," according to a release on the party's web site.

Residents who turned out for the meeting vented their anger at the way Mounties allegedly broke down doors and broke windows to get at their guns, the Calgary Sun reported. Some likened it to a police state and even Nazi Germany.

The RCMP is being investigated on the process that led to the decision to temporarily seize firearms.

[ Related: Southern Alberta floods by the numbers ]

"We are not above accountability," S. Sgt. Ian Shardlow, High River's new detachment commander, told the meeting, but added that during the emergency some hard decisions had to be made.

The Mounties have maintained that they only took guns that were left unsecured as officers searched homes for people. But some residents contend guns that were not in plain view, the Sun said.

Most of the more than 500 guns taken during the evacuation have been returned, RCMP say.

Wildrose has used the gun seizures to attack the government, something that apparently snapped the patience of the municipal affairs minister.

“It’s laughable. It’s a joke and she should be embarrassed by bringing it up,” Griffiths told the Calgary Herald on Thursday, before the Wildrose town hall.

“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.”

A few hours later, Griffiths took to Twitter to dial back the temperature.

But Wildrose's attacks on the issue have clearly gotten under the government's skin.

Premier Alison Redford accused Wildrose of "preying on people's fear and frustrations," the Herald reported on Tuesday.

“We now have the leader of the Opposition saying that the RCMP destroyed property during what was the worst natural disaster in Alberta history? I don’t buy that,” Redford said.

“We have a federal police force that went above and beyond to secure property.”

At the time of the gun seizures, Redford defended the RCMP's actions despite criticism that went as high as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Herald noted. Yet provincial Justice Minister Jonathan Denis wrote the Mounties top Alberta officer expressing concern.

[ Related: Prime Minister’s Office not impressed guns seized from evacuated High River homes ]

Political blogger David J. Climenhaga said Griffith's F-bomb "shows the Wildrose Opposition is getting right up the Progressive Conservative government's collective nose, which is exactly what you want to be doing if you're an opposition party on its way to being a government.

"You rattle 'em, then you put 'em off their game."

It's hard not to sympathize with the government's frustration at Wildrose's attacks, embodied by Griffiths' outburst, Climenhaga said.

"After all, it seems pretty cynically designed to open up the old Harper government wedge about firearms ownership and property rights without really having too much to do with the facts on the ground — or, in this case, I guess, on the water."

Shardlow told the Herald on Tuesday the force is awaiting the results of an investigation by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP into the way officers broke into and searched hundreds of High River homes.

“I hope the [commission] decision will provide us with insight,” he said. “We’re either on the side of angels and this was lawful and everything’s fine. Or it’s not and we need to adjust policies, procedures and decisions that were made.”