Sep 30 2011
Three years ago, RCMP headquarters in Ottawa dictated that when police were responding to potentially violent or weapons-related incidents in remote areas, at least two officers needed to be on the call.
The rule, imposed because of rising concerns about on-duty deaths, had fiscal consequences for jurisdictions that rely on the national force for provincial and local policing, and who as a result had to ensure at least two officers were always available.
Officials in B.C. said this week they’ve never disagreed with the intent of the two-officer policy, but some B.C. detachments were left scrambling to respond because they had no hand in determining how it would be implemented.
The issue seems a small one on the surface, but it has broad consequences — ones that have led the province into a high-stakes showdown with the federal government over the future of policing.
Solicitor-General Shirley Bond this week characterized the impasse as a desire by the province and municipalities to have more control over RCMP decision making to help contain rising costs.
In a background briefing Friday with The Vancouver Sun, a senior government official provided more detail on the exact substance of the problem, laying out why British Columbia is digging in.
The official said the heart of the dispute goes to decisions like the policy that mandates a need for two officers at violent calls.
Under the existing contract — and the new 20-year deal Ottawa wants B.C. to sign — the RCMP has the ability to set significant new policy directions without consulting the province or its municipalities.
It means the force can offer new salary or pension levels to its staff, or mandate new equipment, all without the approval of provincial officials.
But when it comes time to pay for those decisions, B.C. taxpayers are the ones footing much of the bill.
“We need to, on behalf of municipal governments, have some say in the costs the RCMP is incurring,” Premier Christy Clark told reporters Friday when asked about the contract impasse.
“When you de-link the people who are paying for the service from the people who are incurring the costs, you can end up with a big problem,” she added.
“That’s the accountability we want to build into the contract.”
In an interview with CKNW this week, federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews addressed the criticism saying the federal government pays some of the costs for RCMP policing in B.C., and so has “every incentive to keep the costs low as well.”
“The municipalities and the provinces aren’t in that boat alone,” he said. “We’re concerned about that too, given our liability that is on the line.”
In 2009/10, the RCMP policing contract in B.C. cost $992 million. Of that, the federal government paid $184 million, or about 20 per cent.
The province contributed $315 million and municipalities paid $493 million.
While the province and municipalities shoulder the biggest financial burden, the issues aren’t limited to money.
In the briefing Friday, the B.C. official said that if the province has an issue with a specific RCMP program or department, it has no power to even initiate a review.
He also said that if the force wants to conduct a sweeping review on something like its information technology needs, B.C. doesn’t get a seat at the table.
He added that in many cases, B.C. officials are surprised when decisions are made, and that they are often handed a bill for new spending items and left only to incorporate that into their budgets.
On Friday, Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore, also B.C.’s senior federal cabinet minister, characterized the rift between B.C. and Ottawa as being relatively narrow. Speaking to reporters at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities conference, he said the two parties had reached agreement on most items, including the dollar amount and length of the contract.
“We agree with them on their desire to make sure that ... any cost going forward shouldn’t be an uncontrolled cost,” he said.
“We want to control that and that is in our interests too.”
Moore also denied that Toews had issued an ultimatum for B.C. to either sign the agreement or face the loss of RCMP services.
“There is no ultimatum. What there is, is a timeline,” he said.
“We’re forcing all parties to come to clarity on what their positions are so that we can have clarity.”
Federal and provincial officials agree the last face-to-face negotiation took place on Jan. 17 of this year.
Despite that, much jockeying has been happening behind the scenes ever since.
Throughout this, B.C. has been leading the talks as it has 42 per cent of all Canada’s contract RCMP officers.
On July 22, the provinces remaining in collective negotiations — Alberta and Saskatchewan have broken off from the rest and signed their own individual deals — gave federal officials a proposed contract outlining all the changes they wanted to see.
On Aug. 4, William Baker, deputy minister of Public Safety Canada, issued the now-infamous ultimatum, saying that if the deal wasn’t signed by Nov. 30, they should begin a two-year phase out of the RCMP.
This was followed on Aug. 12, the provincial official said, with a similar letter to Bond from Toews.
In the face of this, Bond has asked Toews for a two-year extension of the existing contract so negotiations can continue.
Toews has declined the request.
Deputy ministers from all remaining provinces involved in negotiations met this Wednesday and all agreed to hold firm. On Friday, Premier Christy Clark reiterated her government’s position that if negotiations don’t go well, the province may have no choice but to establish its own provincial force.
And, perhaps in a sign that this idea is gaining currency, the premier for the first time touted the possible merits of such a move.
“Our assessment is that having our own provincial police force could be cheaper than the deal that’s on the table from Service Canada today for the RCMP,” she said.
“That may change. We’re in the early stage of investigating that.”