The BC NDP government did quite an effective job the past few months of convincing the public that the RCMP is too beleaguered, under-staffed and dysfunctional to be the police force of choice for the City of Surrey.
In fact, it made such a convincing case that it has left the obvious questions: Why are we still dealing with the Mounties at all?
If the RCMP can’t handle the policing contract for B.C.’s second-largest city without devolving the whole province into a public safety crisis, as the government claimed, then why does the government still have confidence in the RCMP to police the rest of British Columbia?
Premier David Eby has had to tap-dance around that question several times since ordering Surrey to stick with its original plans for a municipal police force last Wednesday. His initial answers have centred around blaming Ottawa and its review of the RCMP’s future as a contract policing force.
“We need clarity from the federal government on this, because if they are not continuing the contract, we need to start planning now,” Eby said Thursday.
It’s clever political buck-passing, but it’s not exactly true.
B.C. can start planning its own provincial police force right now, because it can choose to end its contract with the RCMP any time before the 2032 expiring date simply by giving 24 months' notice. The province doesn’t need clarity from Ottawa on anything if it is ready to move on its own.
That’s the real question though: Does this BC NDP government want a new provincial police force? Does it have the political energy, bandwidth and appetite to take on such a large project?
Early indications are no.
You need only look at how the NDP handled an all-party legislative committee’s report into policing last year. MLAs from the NDP, Greens and BC United all came together to recommend the province drop the RCMP and create its own, more effective and accountable, provincial policing agency.
Solicitor General Mike Farnworth took one look at the report, stuffed it in a filing cabinet, and threw away the key. Nothing has been done since.
“The fact that the RCMP has had a difficult time keeping staffing levels to the appropriate level, the fact that we want to have more control over the culture of policing, the training, the arm's length oversight — all of those things factored into the fact that we made this recommendation to move away,” said BC Green MLA Adam Olsen, who sat on the committee.
“It would be nice if the minister just said, we're going to embrace the recommendations of the committee and we're going to do this.”
Farnworth, however, has made no such commitments.
His ministry officials gave a convincing portrayal of an RCMP in crisis last week during a briefing to reporters, describing an agency unable to fill its vacancies, handle its retirements, recruit enough officers, train enough cadets and run its specialized integrated units.
But nowhere did provincial officials suggest the province had even sketched out the basics of what an alternative could look like. Nor did they linger on the government’s decision in November to spend $230 million to fund only half the vacant positions in the province.
One of the sticking points in ditching the RCMP is that municipalities tend to like the deal.
Policing is enormously expensive, depending on the size of the community, and any shift to a new force that comes with extra costs would be met with anger from already cash-strapped municipal councils.
“It was noted that despite a recommendation from the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act for British Columbia to adopt a provincial police force, local governments continue to support maintaining the RCMP as their police force of jurisdiction,” read a July summary by the Union of BC Municipalities of what it submitted the federal government’s RCMP review.
B.C. would have to recruit thousands of new police officers, transition members from the RCMP, handle expensive pension transfer issues, purchase new cars and equipment, construct new community headquarters and so on. The enormity of the change is daunting. The potential for something to go wrong (and over budget) is very real.
Prior to the Surrey issue, the NDP government rarely spoke of RCMP reform at all.
Shifting to a provincial force wasn’t in the last two NDP election platforms. Eby didn’t have it in his leadership bid, or his first 100 day action plan. There’s no political will behind the idea from this administration. Or, at least, there wasn’t until the government needed something to justify forcing Surrey to stick with a municipal police force, and deprecating the RCMP became a means to that end.
Eby's primary political opponent isn’t in a rush to push the issue either.
“At this point, that wouldn’t be a first top priority for me,” said BC United leader Kevin Falcon, when asked about creating a provincial police force. “We’d have to look at different options, existing, regional, provincial.”
The BC Greens, though, think the NDP should get moving.
“I’m not sure why the premier is kind of deflecting leadership on this issue to the federal government,” said Olsen. “We have the responsibility in our province for policing our province, not the federal government.
“So what I’m looking for is leadership from the premier, and leadership from the minister.”
That may not be coming from the NDP on this issue, though. With the RCMP’s usefulness as a political tool over in Surrey, the government seems intent to return to slow-playing the idea of police reform for the foreseeable future.
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@example.com