Nine provinces and territories are preparing a showdown with Ottawa over the cost of the RCMP, a battle that could determine whether the Mounties remain the street-level police force in much of the country.
The B.C. government – concerned about policing costs borne by its cash-strapped municipalities – wants a better deal, including more accountability from local RCMP detachments that serve much of the province outside greater Vancouver and Victoria. The province's Solicitor-General, Shirley Bond, says Ottawa threatened to yank the RCMP unless B.C. agrees to the same 20-year contract inked by Alberta and Saskatchewan this year.
Now B.C. is pushing back against the force, which has been battered in recent years by notorious incidents such as a fatal taser attack on a Polish traveller in Vancouver, as well as institutional troubles that see it currently without a commissioner.
"Yes, there's a coalition. B.C. has been the leader of the group since the beginning of negotiations," Ms. Bond said in an interview at the annual meeting of the province's municipalities.
British Columbia is home to one in three members of the national police force. But talks on renewing the contract between the province and Ottawa on paying for the service have broken down.
"It's not a matter of sweetening the deal. It's a matter of getting the best deal for British Columbia and, in fact, we are part of a coalition that has actually nine other jurisdictions still looking for a deal with the federal government," Ms. Bond said.
Ms. Bond said the other bloc members are the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Manitoba.
Earlier this week, she dropped the bombshell that Ottawa is threatening to pull the RCMP out of the province by 2014 unless B.C. signs a 20-year policing contract by the end of November.
On Wednesday, the Harper government began to push back at Victoria. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews confirmed the ultimatum, saying the only option on the table is the agreement recently approved by Alberta and Saskatchewan.
"We do not force provinces to accept the RCMP. We think it is a good deal, but it is up to the provinces to do it," Mr. Toews said during Question Period.
Federal officials said they were caught by surprise when B.C. went public on Tuesday.
However, a senior federal source accused the B.C. government of "playing poker," saying the province wants to enjoy the 30-per-cent cost savings offered by the Mounties, while controlling the police force in the same way that Ontario controls its Ontario Provincial Police.
The federal source added that British Columbia is trying to persuade Manitoba and the Maritime provinces to pressure Ottawa into sweetening the deal that was already approved by Alberta and Saskatchewan.
"What they want is the cash benefits of having the RCMP, and they want the control benefit of having their own police force," the federal official said.
B.C., for its part, is threatening to revive the provincial force it dismantled in 1950.
Peter Fassbender, mayor of the City of Langley and co-chair of a committee of Lower Mainland mayors who have the Mounties as their police force, said re-creating a new provincial force would be a "huge" challenge with daunting costs. "Do we want to do it? No. Are the costs significant? Yes. But we're not prepared to sign a 20-year blank cheque."
The dispute comes at a time when the RCMP is plagued by structural problems that were aired by an auditor-general's report over the summer. It found that, to balance the books, the force had cut back on what were once its priorities, including investigations into drug trafficking and white-collar crime. A data hub, relied on by police forces across the country for DNA, forensic and criminal-history information, was so backed up that it would sometimes take up to three years for a routine update to be made into a file.
Internecine struggles have beset the upper ranks in recent years, with a revolt by senior officers against the leadership of Commissioner William Elliott. A career civil servant with no policing experience when he was appointed to lead the RCMP in 2007, Mr. Elliott announced he would step down earlier this year, but the Harper government has yet to name his replacement.
In Ottawa, a source said Wednesday that officials are waiting for a clear list of demands from the B.C. government to resume negotiations.
Ms. Bond disputed that, saying the province submitted a proposal in July and has sent several letters to Mr. Toews.
As Mr. Toews talked tough in the House on Wednesday, his cabinet colleague from British Columbia, Heritage Minister James Moore, seemed to be trying to smooth the friction.
"The gulf here … is actually not that wide. We're prepared to work with them on a solution," Mr. Moore said.
"The question is the governance question about unexpected increased costs over the span of a 20-year agreement."
Mr. Moore is to address the gathering of municipalities in Vancouver on Friday. B.C. Premier Christie Clark, who has yet to speak to the issue, will deliver a keynote speech on municipal affairs after Mr. Moore.
With a report by Adrian Morrow