The encroaching brinksmanship in the negotiations over a deal for policing in British Columbia brings to light an issue that has been festering across the country for years.
Most of Canada’s provinces buy policing services from the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but they gripe about it as they do. There are chronic complaints about poor service in rural areas, slow response times, and a difficulty in holding the force accountable at the provincial level, because, after all, it answers to federal masters.
Throw into the mix the new challenges identified this summer by the federal auditor-general, and the problem is elevated to the level of a potential crisis. The A-G’s report identified a budget problem so severe that fixing it might require cutting back on such things as investigations into drug trafficking and white-collar crime. Further, the report noted that a national database used by police forces across the country was so backed up that it would take up to three years for simple file updates.
B.C. has been negotiating with the feds for four years, and wants a new 20-year deal with the RCMP that helps ensure that local municipalities won’t have to deal with huge cost hikes on policing. But federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is playing hardball, and has warned – in a statement he claimed was not an ultimatum – that either there’s a deal by Nov. 30, or talks are “fini”.
Setting a pattern
The nine other provinces and territories that buy policing services from the feds are watching with great interest, hoping that B.C. toughs it out and strikes the kind of juicy deal they can use for a pattern in their own future negotiations. All, that is, except Saskatchewan and Alberta, which have – for reasons not readily apparent – recently caved and signed long-term deals under less favourable terms than those B.C. is after.
Of course, any province has the jurisdictional authority to set up its own policing services. Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have done that, although N & L’s “Royal Constabulary” is only responsible for its larger urban areas. On the plus side, these departments are directly accountable to their respective legislatures; on the downside, they bring with them an expensive new level of bureaucracy that becomes yet another drain on limited resources.
Not that the idea hasn’t been entertained. In the infamous “Firewall” letter of 2001, several Alberta conservative thought leaders – including future prime minister Stephen Harper – called for the establishment of a provincial police service. It’s a romantic notion with nationalistic allure for such an independently minded province/state. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed in government when the true cost of establishing and running a full-service police service were considered.
The simple truth is that, if fears of federal intrusion can be overcome, it makes sense to have one nationally co-ordinated police service for most of the provinces and regions. The advantages are numerous: lower overall administrative costs, economies of scale and virtually seamless data-sharing.
The RCMP also has a fine history associated with the growth of this nation beyond its two centrist founding provinces.
Let’s hope B.C. and the federal government can find that fair middle ground in this tough round of talks. The current policing model may not be perfect, but it beats by a mile the alternative: a rag-tag collection of police forces with a mishmash of standards and, no doubt, initiating a whole new set of jurisdictional turf wars.