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Rob Shaw: Departure of B.C.’s chief coroner offers NDP opportunity to neuter future critics

Lisa Lapointe is set to retire early next year, paving the way for the province to weaken the office
Lisa Lapointe - province of BC
BC Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe is set to retire early next year.

What happens when a barely-independent watchdog loses its biggest advocate, leaving a leadership-vacuum to be filled by a hyper-partisan, control-freak provincial government?

We’re about to find out at the BC Coroners Service, as Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe gets set to retire in February. Her departure will give the BC NDP government the opportunity to neuter a Coroners Service that has been a vocal critic of its policies and inaction.

Lapointe took the government to task for its slow response and failures that led to 619 deaths in the 2021 heat dome. She’s repeatedly chastised the NDP for not being aggressive enough in safe supply and addictions treatment to help those dying from toxic drugs in all corners of the province.

“It deeply saddens me that we have been unable to influence the essential change necessary to reduce the tragic impacts of toxic drugs on so many thousands of our family members, friends and colleagues across the province,” Lapointe said in her retirement announcement.

“The measures recommended by the expert members of Coroners Service death-review panels are essential to ending this crisis and I will continue to support those recommendations post retirement.”

The NDP did not support Lapointe’s most recent recommendations, which included expanding the safe supply of illicit drugs and removing the requirement for a physician prescription.

So frustrated were New Democrats with the coroner’s pesky advocacy, they sandbagged her by releasing a letter shooting down her ideas in the middle of the press conference in which she was presenting them publicly.

Lapointe’s departure is a golden opportunity for the NDP to start further undermining the Coroners Service, effectively silencing a critic of its policies.

Unfortunately, it would be easy for the government to do.

The chief coroner is not an independent officer of the legislature, they are an employee of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. The office is not firewalled from political interference, like the Auditor General or Privacy Commissioner, but a mere subset of a larger ministry, reporting to the same mid-level bureaucrats whose policies it often criticizes.

The tenuous independence of the Coroners Service has been a concern for decades. It has survived only because fierce chief coroners like Larry Campbell, Vince Cain, Terry Smith, and now Lapointe, pushed back against the encroaching politicians and gave coroners the space they needed to do their job investigating deaths, issuing recommendations and holding inquests.

Coroners have special powers under the law, but they can’t use them if there’s not enough freedom, time and money to do the work.

New Democrats in opposition often lamented about the risk the BC Liberal government presented to the independence of the coroner. But there’s never been a greater danger to that office than now, under a New Democrat administration that is obsessed with control, doesn’t like to be criticized and is run by a premier’s office that will do anything to get its way.

The most obvious move would be for the NDP to select a replacement for Lapointe who is a loyal New Democrat, unwilling to rock the boat.

Barring that, it could appoint a stuffed shirt lawyer to the role, who would start paring down the functions of the office for nebulous reasons like the privacy rights of the deceased.

Or, the NDP could simply starve the coroner of money, with Solicitor General Mike Farnworth quietly tightening the small line item in his budget that allows the coroner to conduct all the investigations and advocacy that is so inconvenient to a political party in power.

Lapointe’s departure reminds us of the fragility of the Coroners Service.

It shouldn’t be this way.

The BC Coroners Service should be made an independent office of the legislature. An independent all-party committee should select Lapointe’s replacement.

All the good work it does to investigate deaths and recommend critical improvements is predicated on the cooperation of the politicians of the day to give it the independence and money it needs to be successful.

That is no way to treat an important public watchdog.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]