By Rebecca Dingwell
Chief Jean-Michel Blais walks down the hall of the Halifax Regional Police Station on Gottingen Street to make his morning rounds on one of his first days back from holiday. He slips around the corner to the offices of his employees in charge of media relation and pokes his head into the workplace of Const. Pierre Bourdages. Bourdages jumps from his seat to greet him, bearing a smile which hints at genuine happiness to see Blais, rather than required behaviour towards his boss. This is consistent with the other employees Blais greets in the morning, right before he makes his usual trip to Tim Hortons for a cup of Earl Grey.
Blais has held the title of Chief since October, 2012, taking over after Frank Beazley retired. He is the first member of the RCMP to become Chief of the HRP. Blais is already making his mark. Not only does Blais have a keen eye for detail and a knack for planning ahead, he also brings a compassion for people to his job.
For example, Blais has been working with his officers on a “ten year plan” for the HRP.
“The goal of the ten year plan, I think, will be three-fold,” Blais explains.
He says the plan is to let them know where they’re going, allow the next generation of leaders to have a say in where their careers are going and “allow the great ideas that are just percolating at the lower ranks of the organization” to be part of the document.
Blais takes gulps of his tea in between his statements on how his career has shifted. Although he is no longer in the RCMP, he still credits many valuable experiences to his time with them.
“Working [with] the United Nations in Haiti has allowed me to understand areas where there is no rule of law,” Blais says. “Building a municipal and federal police force all in one has allowed me to be able to come in here in the HRP and to be able to make changes and decide where I want to go and how I want to improve things.”
Blais has been to Haiti three times: In 1995, 2008, and his most recent tour in 2010. He says these experiences helped show him the importance of leadership.
Blais and his officers faced many challenges in Haiti. An event that stands out for him was the problems caused by hurricanes in September of 2008.
“A lot of my police officers had no place to live and were sleeping under the stars every single night,” Blais recalls.
Blais is still significantly affected by what occurred the following November when an elementary school collapsed.
“I saw almost every single body,” he says.
Perhaps having seen such poverty is part of what inspired Blais to begin cultivating relationships with halfway houses in Halifax early on in his journey as Chief. For instance, he recently spoke to Rene Ross of Stepping Stone, which deals with (mainly female) sex trade workers.
On the front lines
“Sometimes [people] are marginalized because the law doesn’t allow them to be anything but marginalized,” Blais says.
He says problems occur when such a woman is arrested for public solicitation. The woman is brought before a judge and the judge releases her on conditions which include her not to be found in the area in which she would normally be found soliciting.
“It causes problems for her because she has a normal life. She has friends in that area,” Blais says. “Just by showing up in that area, she is in violation of those conditions. So, it’s a matter of being able to vary those conditions.”
In addition, Blais has also met with people who work at the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre.
“These people are on the front lines doing their job and if I’m not supporting them, then I’m going to have to deal with the people that they do normally support,” he says.
Blais admits this sounds self-serving. While it is to an extent, it also means he wants to recognize the great work that these halfway houses do.
Currently, Blais is focused on the problem of violence, particularly downtown.
“We want to bring this to the forefront in terms of discussions,” he says.
Blais hopes closing bars earlier will help, given that people are more likely to be violent based on how fatigued and intoxicated they are. However, he acknowledges that this is only one piece of the puzzle. Blais says violence is a complex problem, and likewise, the solution will be complex.
A long career
Believe it or not, helping people was not at the forefront of Blais’ mind when he decided he wanted to be a police officer. Blais knew he didn’t want to be sitting in an office all day.
“I wanted to be stimulated by different challenges.”
Blais felt he could find those challenges and use his problem solving skills to overcome them if he chose policing as a career. Armed with a law degree, he applied and was accepted to work with the RCMP.
Blais recalls a recent interaction with an RCMP applicant. The applicant wasn’t aware that Blais was an officer, and Blais asked him why he wanted to work with the police.
“He said, ‘Because I want people to obey the laws,’” Blais recalls. “That’s not a good reason. That’s almost a power trip.”
In his past few years in the field, Blais realized that helping people is the most important part of the job and is what makes it rewarding.
However, he hesitates to share his most rewarding experience.
“You’re talking about a long career,” he says.
Blais ends by going back to his time in Haiti, particularly in 1995. He remembers finding value in being able to help people on a regular basis, training new police officers and being able to come into organizations to affect change.
“I’d like to be able to say I saved some child’s life. I haven’t, unfortunately,” Blais says. “I’ve picked up their bodies after they’re gone, and there’s no solace in that.”
He hopes that in the future he’ll be able to continue helping people stay engaged in living instead of dying.