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Rob Shaw: A last-minute hint about RCMP contracting makes the B.C. decision on Surrey policing that much more convenient

Ottawa may want out of contract policing, which means the provincial decision is more practical
rcmp road safety week checks (RCMP submitted)
The province seems likely to say no to Surrey's proposal to retain the RCMP as the local police force.

New revelations from Ottawa that it is considering ending RCMP contract policing could not have come at a better time for the B.C. NDP government: It will make it easier for Solicitor General Mike Farnworth to say no to the Surrey RCMP proposal Wednesday.

The province is already leaning in that direction anyway — it disputes Surrey’s cost estimates, staffing plan and transition timelines for the RCMP, as crafted by the city in several reports. In April, it “strongly recommended” Surrey continue transitioning to a municipal police force, and offered $150 million in provincial aid to do so.

But the straw that breaks the camel’s back in the case against the RCMP may be from the federal government itself, amid leaks that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants the Mounties to get out of the business of front-line community policing and focus on becoming a specialized investigative unit, kind of like an FBI of the north.

The Toronto Star had the first report on the issue from sources Monday, as well as an interview with federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, that indicated the Trudeau government and the RCMP are pushing forward with the idea.

The timeline for Ottawa makes sense, given the several years notice the RCMP will have to serve provinces in advance of the 2032 expiration date on contract policing. It would make sense for the provinces too, with premiers publicly chastizing the Trudeau government as recently as last week for being unclear on its future direction for the RCMP.

“We need to know which direction the federal government is going with contract policing because the current situation is not sustainable in British Columbia,” Premier David Eby said at the Council of the Federation last week, when asked about the RCMP’s policing future.

On Monday, after the Star story, Farnworth attempted to wax poetic about what a shift from the Mounties would mean for policing.

“I think it's important that we do have these kinds of discussions on police reform and how police policing evolves,” he said. “Just as society is changing and evolving, so does policing.”

But behind-the-scenes, it’s impossible to unring this bell when it comes to B.C.

Why would the province allow the largest city in the province to transition back to the largest RCMP contract in the entire country, when the RCMP itself may be trying to get out of that contract in the near future?

It seems unwise for the province to increase its reliance on an unstable, in-flux, policing partner. That’s on top of more than 200 unfunded vacancies in the B.C. RCMP, reports that more officers are leaving the force than it can train annually, and the threat that a Surrey RCMP transition could undermine the effectiveness of not only rural policing detachments but also the specialized investigative units in key areas.

“We have officers that have to work extended shifts, that are increasingly strained and stressed and then going off on leave, making the problem worse,” said Eby. “We don’t see a clear path from the federal government on clearing those vacancies.”

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said she’s left to wonder if Ottawa is simply ending contract policing through attrition, by failing to fund or fill so many RCMP positions across the country that the force simply collapses. She called on Ottawa to make it clear to provinces immediately what is happening, so they can begin to plan provision police forces if necessary.

Technically, Wednesday’s decision in Surrey will be based on the limited statutory powers and considerations available to Farnworth under the BC Police Act. The law could use a serious rewrite, as it was never intended to be applied to such a messy scenario as the one playing out in Surrey.

The Police Act doesn’t give Farnworth much leeway in justifying a decision in Surrey on the basis of anonymous sources close to the prime minister in Ottawa outlining the future of the RCMP. But where the law is silent on this issue, Farnworth will have to fill it himself with political common sense. B.C. has the largest policing contract with the RCMP in the country, and it would be foolish to ignore the news coming out of Ottawa.

All of this makes it increasingly unlikely the RCMP will return to Surrey after Wednesday’s decision. Eventually, the Mounties may not be policing anywhere in this province at all.

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]