In his 40-year policing career, Supt. Mike McDonell has never stayed in the same role for more than 32 months.
Long before he became one of Canada’s top counterterrorism experts, he worked as a drug cop, a member of the RCMP Musical Ride and a United Nations station commander in the former Yugoslavia. Five years ago, he retired from the RCMP and, not ready to quit law enforcement, joined the Ontario Provincial Police.
He has moved house 22 times.
“If you’re at the top of any group, you should never stay too long,” McDonell says, reflecting on his career philosophy in a recent interview at the Brampton headquarters of the Toronto Pan Am/Parapan Games Integrated Security Unit. “You’ve gotta know when to move on.”
With roughly 27 months as ISU head behind him and only a few more to go, McDonell is in no danger of breaking his record of keeping things fresh. As head of security, he is responsible for co-ordinating the operations of the eight police forces from across southern Ontario that have jurisdiction over Games venues, plus the OPP and RCMP. All share the common goal of keeping citizens safe during the 35-day event.
“We’re training our officers to be discreet, so we really are learning to fight smarter instead of harder — not that in-your-face policing,” McDonell says.
The aim is to keep the Games open, to protect people without being seen doing it. McDonell is sensitive to the strained relationship between police and the public during and after the G20 summit five years ago in Toronto.
“We’ve taken the lessons from there and we’re applying it to here,” he says.
After a wide-ranging 35-year career with the RCMP — his last role was assistant commissioner and commanding officer for Ontario — McDonell retired from the force in 2010 and dropped four ranks to take his dream job as head of a small OPP detachment in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, where he has family roots.
The OPP job meant a return home for McDonell, a 60-year-old father of four whose own parents — mom was a teacher, dad was an Ottawa police officer — had retired to a family property in Glengarry.
“Best three years of my policing career,” McDonell says. “Just to go back and touch the ground again after doing terrorism for so long . . . that was my dream job and everybody knew it . . . I was reborn. I felt five years younger.”
Colleagues there say he led by example — often responding to calls for service himself — and brought positive change to the detachment.
“He makes things happen and makes it look so easy that it just inspires you to go out and challenge yourself,” says OPP Staff Sgt. Ameen Khan, who works out of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.
McDonell held the job for 32 months, which is the record, tied with his role as assistant commissioner in charge of national security criminal investigations for the RCMP. Then he decided his second-in-command was ready to lead. McDonell’s time had come again.
Leading the ISU brought McDonell back into the national spotlight, where he has faced tough questions about the OPP’s decision to award a private security contract to an American company even though its bid was $14 million more than a runner-up Ontario firm, and about the Games’ overall ballooning security budget, which has doubled from an original estimate of $121.9 million to $239.5 million.
“The first budget was done in haste, if I want to be quite honest about it,” McDonell says. That was before he was with the ISU. “When I came we redid the budget to be a very practical, economic but effective budget. And I think it’s modest by any standard.”
The budget is tied to Canada’s domestic terrorism threat level, which was raised to “medium” in October 2014, meaning that officials believe there is a person or group with the intent and capability to cause a terrorist attack in Canada, and that an attack “could occur,” McDonell says.
Security costs could rise if the threat level were to increase. But, says McDonell, “What I can tell you is I’m extremely confident that I’m gonna be within budget.”
- With files from Richard J. Brennan