submitted by Honourable Wally Oppal, Q.C., Former Attorney General of British Columbia
Across Canada, citizens’ expectations of police continue to evolve. In my time, we have seen many transformative changes. For instance, the smartphone has almost single-handedly changed the way in which citizens interact with the police. Like many other institutions in today’s evolving world, policing is being re-examined – as it should. Questions relating to such areas as civilian oversight, community-based policing, diversity, and the need to prioritize reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples are the subject of much discussion.
We all must take a greater interest in policing. In my opinion, there is far too little critical analysis of the police from governments. I commend jurisdictions such as Alberta that are asking the difficult but necessary questions regarding the best provincial policing model for their citizens. Historically, Ottawa has governed the RCMP with little input from provinces or municipalities. This federal structure presents serious issues, particularly when it comes to governance and oversight, which is one of the most important aspects of policing. Yet, we must not forget that concerns relating to the RCMP are systemic and should not detract from the dedication and professionalism of its officers. Communities have benefited from RCMP members who have contributed to the social fabric of their communities they police.
However, in discussing the future needs of any province, it is imperative to ask ourselves whether it is appropriate to have provincial policing based out of Ottawa. The contract policing model used by the RCMP is highly centralized, difficult to reform and too often preoccupied with the needs of an Ottawa-based bureaucracy. We saw an example of this recently, with unilateral federal fiscal decisions adversely affecting local governments. The federal government signed onto a new collective agreement for RCMP officers with millions of dollars in new costs, all with no input from provinces and municipalities.
In provinces like Alberta, the RCMP is supposed to act as a provincial police, accountable to the provincial solicitor general. However, federal laws dictate that the RCMP is also responsible to the federal solicitor general. The lines of authority and accountability are never clear. This fundamental contradiction makes it particularly difficult for any province to change how the RCMP operates. It is also a major reason why a British Columbia all-parties’ committee recently recommended that B.C. create its own provincial police to take over from the RCMP.
I believe the RCMP will always have a role in policing our country, as they continue to provide their expertise in areas such as narcotics, organized crime, borders, and other federally-mandated matters. I also believe it is possible, and highly beneficial to establish a provincial police service with better civilian oversight, while keeping local needs and challenges top of mind. And make no mistake, the discussion happening in Alberta is also taking place all over this country, as Canadians and government rethink how they would like policing to look in the 21st century.