Oh, thank you, faceless Ottawa bureaucrats, for making the B.C. government do what it ought to have done years ago – look at sending the Mounties packing.
Federal negotiators started playing hardball this summer with renewing its RCMP contract for another two decades. This week, Solicitor-General Shirley Bond took the battle public, saying it is time for the province to look at alternatives to British Columbia's current patchwork of police services.
It is hard to imagine talks blowing up like this a year ago. Then-premier Gordon Campbell cultivated a good relationship with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and differences – with very few exceptions – were resolved in the backrooms.
B.C.'s new premier, Christy Clark, doesn't have that rapport with Mr. Harper. But the bigger change at the table came last May, when Mr. Harper finally won his majority government.
The RCMP contract talks were put on hold during the federal election this spring. When talks resumed, B.C.'s negotiators were in for a surprise. Alberta and Saskatchewan had quietly broken off from the block of provinces and territories that were negotiating a new RCMP deal, and had signed their own pacts. Now Ottawa was saying, this is the only model for a settlement, take it or we'll withdraw the Mounties' services.
Especially in B.C., home to about a third of the national force, the bravado of Ottawa's tough line is hard to swallow. Shut down the RCMP services in B.C. and what do you have left? Still, the provocation might have stayed behind closed doors, except that this is UBCM week.
Civic politicians have been excluded from the bargaining table but have a major financial stake in the outcome – they pay roughly half of the policing bills. So Ms. Bond waited until the annual conference of the Union of B.C. Municipalities before firing back, with a supportive crowd of mayors at her back.
CAN B.C. BUILD ITS OWN POLICE FORCE?
The current contract runs out in just six months. But Ms. Bond was being disingenuous when she suggested this week that B.C. is just starting to look at an alternative to the RCMP, which provides police services to five dozen municipalities in B.C.
Because the B.C. civil service has been doing detailed work on just such an eventuality for several years. They've analyzed what it would cost to buy out federally-owned capital assets – such as RCMP detachments – and what it would need to do to take over police training.
Over the years, individual cabinet ministers in the B.C. government have toyed with the notion of returning to a provincial police force (the province disbanded its own force in 1950) and while Ms. Bond may not be serious about executing Plan B, others before her have made sure the foundations were prepared.
If the contract is not renewed by November of this year, Ottawa has indicated it would pull out of the province by 2014. It is a short time frame, but not impossible – if there was the political will.
DOES B.C. REALLY WANT CHANGE?
No, the province doesn't really want out of the RCMP contract. It just wants more accountability in a renewed RCMP contract.
Which sounds great – except what they mean by that is probably not what most civilians are concerned with. What the province's top negotiators are looking for is some kind of financial control over how much the province will contribute to, for example, accommodations or training.
The public, meanwhile, is wondering why B.C. can't set standards for use of force – such as, when is it ever appropriate to taser an 11-year-old boy, or a man armed with a stapler?
The federal government has had B.C. over a barrel because it subsidizes policing for those municipalities that choose RCMP services. Last year, a total of $992-million was spent on RCMP-contract policing in B.C. and Ottawa picked up $184-million of the tab.
There is a reasonable public debate to be had over what that is worth. But first the province has to tell the public what it would cost to change the guard. Officials say it would be "expensive" but they refuse to divulge the details.
The provincial government continues to work on what it would cost to switch to a provincial police force, according to Ms. Bond's officials. But unless the Solicitor-General is simply posturing as a bargaining tactic, she should be open with the public about the options.