Potvin tragedy pulls RCMP policy into question

The drowning death of Mayo Const. Michael Potvin could reshape RCMP policy across the country. Potvin was following policy when his boat capsized on the Stewart River on July 13.

The drowning death of Mayo Const. Michael Potvin could reshape RCMP policy across the country.

Potvin was following policy when his boat capsized on the Stewart River on July 13 – he was wearing soft body armour and a duty belt that included a firearm, baton and handcuffs.

The belt weighed roughly 24 pounds.

The 26-year-old Mountie was only “a few feet from the riverbank, at the boat launch,” when witnesses saw him submerge, Whitehorse chief superintendent Peter Clark said during a news briefing Wednesday.

“At that point the river is over 20-feet deep and has some strong and ever-changing currents.”

It’s also RCMP policy to wear a personal floatation device when using a watercraft.

But neither Potvin nor the RCMP officer operating the boat were wearing life jackets.

The inflatable personal floatation devices on board have a positive buoyancy of 35 pounds, and would have offset the weight of Potvin’s duty belt and soggy body armour.

RCMP searching for Potvin in the following weeks wore survival coats as well as their inflatable life jackets, following police policy.

But they didn’t always wear duty belts – breaching policy.

Following Potvin’s death, the policy surrounding duty belts is being examined, said Clark.

“It’s being carefully examined, not only here in Yukon, but we have discussed those policies with national headquarters in Ottawa that sets parameters around the duty belts.

“There is some latitude available to officers with having it on.”

But two weeks ago, just after Potvin went missing, there was no mention of latitude when it came to policy.

On duty RCMP officers are “required to wear their general duty belt at all times, and that includes when you’re operating a watercraft,” RCMP spokesman Sgt. Don Rogers said at the time.

This week, Rogers maintains “policy dictates that we wear our belts.

“But it’s the guideline and there is room in every situation for certain allowances,” he said, when questioned about why officers searching for Potvin were not wearing the belts.

According to policy, Rogers is supposed to wear his full uniform in the boat.

“But when I go in the boat, I might decide to wear different boots because I don’t want to get my feet wet and get hypothermia,” he said. “I’m not following policy, it’s there for a reason, but there are certain instances where we may deviate from it in small amounts.”

The RCMP will remind new trainees about what happened when Potvin chose not to put on his life jacket, added Rogers in an online Yellowknife news feed.

“I’m sure that will be reiterated on training courses when members take their basic water training and something that will remain fresh in our minds and will be front and centre,” he said, according to the site hqyellowknife.com.

Potvin’s death has sparked a review of the RCMP’s “entire marine, water transport program here in the Yukon,” said Clark. “To ensure our vessels meet the standards of safety and legislation that are appropriate.”

The officer operating the boat had taken his boat safety course, but Potvin did not have this training. The two RCMP were “on a routine patrol and had been burning off some old fuel and doing some maintenance checks on the boat, when it took on water and capsized just a few hundred feet from the boat launch,” said Clark.

Health and safety officers from the department of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada are investigating the incident, and the RCMP is still considering an internal investigation involving the officer who was operating the boat, on “conduct matters.”

The search for Potvin has been scaled back, but “I don’t envision the search ever formally being called off,” said Clark.

“Our file will remain open until such time as we find him.”

During the search, RCMP divers from Prince George used sonar extensively, said Clark.

“We were able to scan the river bottom to the level of detail that 45-gallon drums long since lost in the river and rubber tires off vehicles were easily picked up. And it was evident Potvin was not there.”

The RCMP received advice from experts, the local community and the search master, said Clark.

“We learned that in the past, persons lost in that portion of the Stewart River have on occasion not been found – ever,” he said.

“We have come to the realization Potvin is not with us and may never be found.

“Despite that, we continue to look.”

With the support of Potvin’s family, the community and the Na-cho Nyak Dun First Nation will continue with its annual salmon harvest, said Clark.

“The use of their nets may help locate Potvin.”

And in a few days, hunting season will begin and conservation officers and RCMP policing the area will continue looking for the missing officer, he said.

Late last week, Potvin’s pregnant wife and his parents met with Mayo residents and the RCMP for a community debriefing.

Following his training in Regina, Potvin’s first post was Watson Lake in 2009. But after six months he and his wife requested a move to a smaller community like Mayo “where they felt they could contribute,” said Clark.

“And they were certainly active in community and much appreciated.”

As soon as the community learned Potvin was missing, “countless residents responded: they put boats in the water, walked the bank – there was a helicopter in air,” said Clark.

“And over the next few days, the search continued with more RCMP and their spouses there to support Mrs. Potvin. The daycare shut down to prepare food for members, and boats, lodging, mobile homes and tents trailers were made available for searchers – it was absolutely outstanding.”

Seven members of Potvin’s family also arrived in Mayo to assist with the search.

Potvin is from Osgoode, Ontario. And on August 4 at 9:30 a.m. a memorial service is being held at St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa. Mrs. Potvin is back home with family and will attend the service.

Because she is seven months pregnant her ability to travel will be restricted in the near future, said Clark. “So we will work with her to determine an appropriate memorial in the Yukon, in the future.

“Anytime a member of the RCMP loses their life while performing their duties impacts each of us,” he said.

“The loss of Potvin is tragic and has been extremely difficult for all concerned.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com