Out of the blue

Outgoing Halifax Police chief Jean-Michel Blais reflects on his career and what’s next

Jean-Michel Blais didn’t always want to be a cop.

The McGill grad, unable to find other work, followed in his stepfather’s footsteps as a cab driver in Toronto in the 1980s.

During a Christmas Day shift, a passenger with a knife attacked him. “Police arrested the guy and I got away unscathed, but I’ve always been interested in what social issues or substance abuse issues would drive someone to those stakes,” he says. “So I began thinking about law enforcement. I applied to the Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP, and the latter called first.”

He went to southern Quebec at age 26 after training. “My sister died of an overdose, and we suspect my mother did also,” he says. “[It influenced] how I wanted to serve. I saw policing drugs as a way to contribute. I didn’t want to just shake my finger at kids. I wanted to show the advantages and what you could achieve without poisoning your body or altering your mind.”

Like most RCMP officers, Blais bounced around. He went from St. George La Bousse south of Quebec, to Quebec City, to Haiti on his first United Nations mission, and then to Montreal. In 2000, he then went to Ottawa briefly, and Winnipeg, and Portage La Prairie, then Ottawa again, and he went to Haiti twice more in 2010 and 2013 before settling in Halifax.

After 25 years with the RCMP, Jean-Michel Blais joined the Halifax Regional Police in 2012. “My RCMP boss says I could have my own divisional command in a few years, but my in-laws had moved here from Montreal and we wanted to make Halifax home,” he says. “My old office is right next to this one. This was the most significant change of my career, but the smallest transfer. I took the same box for 10 trips.”

John Ferguson was sworn in the same day as Blais in Toronto. “From the minute I met him, it was evident he was a bright, articulate guy,” says Ferguson, who works in Alberta. “As we went through training, he was just a natural leader.”

Ferguson would go to Manitoba at the end of training, while Blais went to Quebec. They’ve stayed friends for 31 years.

He remembers a trip together just after graduation. “We met at the airport after we were sworn in, given an ethics lecture and everything else,” he recalls. “He approached the ticket agent, dropped his ticket on the counter and says, ‘any chance of bumping two of Canada’s finest to business class?’”

He recalls the smile on Blais’s face that day. “We flew out in style, and we drank beers in the air over Winnipeg,” he laughs. “But given Jean-Michel’s strong sense of right and wrong, that probably wouldn’t be something he’d do these days.”

The Coast recently called Blais a “self-described lefty.” Blais laughs at the label. “Considering I’m still wondering where to situate myself on the political spectrum, I’m not sure how they could know,” he says. “People keep asking about politics, and whether I’m running for the NDP or the Progressive Conservatives. The answer is ‘I don’t think so.’ That’s not what my plans are… It sounds like I’m being coy, but I don’t even know myself if that’s in the future. But people will always speculate. If it was 2020, they’d guess municipal council. If it was 2021, it’d be about the provincial election.”

Blais has faced criticism in the last couple years, notably for missing drug and evidence exhibits. A Final Drug Exhibit Report, released in January 2018, says all missing evidence (including drug samples, money and other items equalling hundreds of evidence pieces) was destroyed, not stolen. “We couldn’t physically account for some of these items. We believe they were destroyed, but we can’t conclusively say that,” said Supt. Jim Perrin to reporters that day at the Board of Police Commissioners meeting.

The audit began in 2015 with allegations that an officer had been stealing evidence. The missing exhibits included 293 sums of cash, 331 large drug exhibits, and just over 2,500 smaller and non-drug exhibits.

“On a personal level, people were asking me questions about drug exhibits, and they deserved an answer,” Blais says. “I owed them one. It was a longstanding issue caused by infrastructure issues and amalgamation, and we are in a far better state than we were five years ago.”

Russell Walker, current Halifax councillor and former Police Board of Commissioners chair, was satisfied with the work Blais did. “In my two years on the board, we got along fine,” he says. “The issues we took to him were acted upon. He handled issues directly and head on… It certainly will be interesting to see who they get to replace him.”

Though there’s no firm date to name a replacement yet, Blais says he expects to be off the job by March 2019 at the latest.

Blais has had other controversies. Chief among them was “street checks,” the practice of police stopping people to collect information about them (such as ethnicity, sex, and age) to use in future investigations.

Blais and the department came under fire after statistics showed police were giving more attention to non-white people. “With… street checks, we need to slow down and look at all the issues,” he says. “Officers have to develop a diversity of thought. We are working hard to be able to do that, and it’s important that we follow procedure and make good decisions.”

Civil-rights activist Robert S. Wright helped to write a letter calling for an end to the practice after stats revealed what he says he knew all along. “It came as a huge confirmation that what we’d been saying for years was now acknowledged to be true,” he says. “And now that there were stats to prove our point, the natural next step was to call for a moratorium.”

Wright admits he was “disappointed, but not surprised” by the reaction to the findings. “If [the board of police commissioners] can make those findings and prescribe dozens of recommendations to attempt a correction, why couldn’t the police service say it out loud?” says Wright. “[Why couldn’t they say] ‘this is a problem of systemic racism and we’re going to figure out what to do about it.’”

He feels Blais took the findings seriously, but that he “bungled” the issue. “Did he respond in the way I would have advised him to? No,” he says. But he adds that it’s a systemic problem, not Blais’s alone. “It is too easy for the collective system of justice to make the chief of the police force singularly responsible for unravelling this Gordian knot without making a peep. Without making bold and wise statements of their own. Without mobilizing the resources to help.”

He says Blais did try to make a difference. “The chief … stood and answered questions, he didn’t hide, he went to public meetings in the heart of the black community,” he adds “He would have failed worse if he had been silent.”

The role of police in Halifax Pride sparked another public debate, but Blais thinks the decision to have officers no longer participate in-uniform in the parade was correct.

“We look at cities and know our police don’t have the same history with the community as Toronto or New York, but there were concerns, biases, notions and narratives we had to acknowledge,” he says.

Blais, who previously participated in the parade in full uniform both as an RCMP member and in the HRP, says he didn’t make the decision lightly. “We had to unilaterally step back, but the decision wasn’t made that way,” he explains. “We needed to take time and think about what the best solutions for the community were, and we maintain an open dialogue with Pride Halifax.”

Another issue that hit Blais personally was around complaints from officers about funding for PTSD treatment.

Blais has been outspoken about his issues with PTSD since 2015, stemming from his time in Haiti, and there’s one incident from nearly 25 years earlier that sticks out in his mind. “The Haitian Armed Forces had basically disbanded, and we took over watching prisoners, who probably weren’t even guilty of anything,” he says “We recognized they hadn’t been fed or cleaned. We emptied out the 20” by 20” room crammed with 68 people, and there were three dead bodies in there—emaciated. I realized we needed to protect their basic rights.”

He and the group gave them food, cleaned them and scrubbed down their cells. But Blais couldn’t shake off the memories. “It changed my perception of policing, and I went from wanting to enforce the law to remembering people’s rights also need to be protected, and they need to be treated with respect,” he says.

Two CBC stories from late 2017 feature police officers accusing Blais of hypocrisy regarding his PTSD. They allege they received little help from HRP when asking for funding to help them with their own PTSD struggles.

“There is this idea that I come from above and throw a lightning bolt, and things get done. But we look at the collective agreement we must respect, and basic employer-employee relations,” he says.

“Those individuals went to the human rights board, and I look forward to seeing those decisions and issues come forward. Don’t forget that there’s more than meets the eye.”

He is still hoping to refresh the strategic plan, and stay out working and engaging with the community before he finishes. “My greatest sources of pride included addressing the Association of Pride Festivals, singing at New Horizons Baptist Church, attending Friday prayers at the local mosque, and improving relationships with the city and Acadian Francophone people,” he says.

But he wants people to know that the badge doesn’t define him. He cried when he read Les Miserables on vacation this summer. He’s also an avid Star Wars fan, with a red toy lightsaber on his credenza next to the RCMP officer’s sword he brings to the Maritime Tattoo Festival.

For now, as he approaches the end of a storied career, Blais is keeping things simple. “I’m going to wake up in the morning, work out, bring a coffee to my wife’s bedside with a kiss, and not take myself too seriously. There’s more to life than worrying about the job.”

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