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Opinion: Surrey shows the rest of Canada what not to do when breaking away from the RCMP

The current blue-on-blue battle between competing law enforcement agencies in a large British Columbia city does little to strengthen public trust in the rule of law and in our police forces.
The question of whether the federal RCMP should be involved in municipal policing is being considered by communities across the country as they weigh their options for policing in contemporary times.

The Mounties are known for “always getting their man,” but they might not always get their way — a situation that’s unfolding in Surrey, B.C., where the province wants the RCMP to hand over its responsibilities to the newly formed Surrey Police Service.

This hotly contested and highly controversial move by the B.C. government — the Surrey mayor is vehemently opposed and wants to retain the RCMP — has made its way to the province’s Supreme Court. The case will likely have implications on how the Canadian Constitution applies to police reform.

It will also raise questions of national and practical importance: Should the RCMP be involved in municipal contract policing? Or is that role better left to the municipalities under provincial policing models? These questions illustrate an ongoing struggle between modern police reform and the old guard.

National scope

The question of whether the federal RCMP should be involved in municipal policing is being considered by communities across the country as they weigh their options for policing in contemporary times.

Ottawa has questioned the wisdom of municipal policing contracts with the RCMP. B.C. has investigated the issue via an all-party special committee, which ultimately recommended a transition to a provincial and municipal policing model. Surrey is adapting to this change with some difficulty.

Surrey is the largest city by land mass in the Metro Vancouver area, and projected to be the largest city in B.C by population by 2029, so the case is an interesting barometer of where Canadian policing could be headed.

As calls to ditch the RCMP in B.C. continue, the Mounties and the province must get it right in Surrey to ensure the fragile nature of public trust in those who serve and the agencies they work for is maintained.

This is especially important in light of an array of RCMP controversies involving the deaths of Indigenous people, allegations of a culture of harassment, the poor handling of the Nova Scotia mass shooting and excessive use of force.

Federal vs. provincial jurisdiction

According to the Constitution Act of 1867, territorial governments are under federal control, without the same status as provinces. Provincial governments, on the other hand, receive their legislative authority from the Constitution.

Municipalities fall under provincial constitutional authority. This includes law enforcement services under provincial policing legislation across Canada.

While it’s true that the RCMP has provided provincial and municipal police services under “police services agreements” since the early 1900s, the Mounties weren’t initially structured as a local force of jurisdiction. The RCMP was a frontier force of the Dominion of Canada more aptly framed as a cavalry rather than a constabulary.

In contemporary times, and with the increase of lethal force by police that disproportionately affects marginalized Canadians, there is a strong case for transitioning away from a federal force being involved in provincial policing, even if it’s more expensive over time — as Alberta has highlighted and Surrey is grappling with now.

RCMP no longer the cheapest option

In Canada, municipal policing is paid for from property taxes. Policing, in fact, makes up a significant portion of municipal budgets in many communities.

Traditionally, the RCMP used to provide contract policing service at subsidized rates because Mounties weren’t unionized and paid lower than municipal forces.

But the cheaper option is unlikely to exist much longer since the Supreme Court of Canada ruled RCMP officers could engage in collective bargaining and unionize, which has resulted in at least 20,000 officers receiving significant pay raises.

The practical result of RCMP unionization is rising service costs due to wage increases and other collective bargaining issues that are falling to individual municipalities, stretching already tight budgets.

The RCMP is now largely a unionized federal force — not a provincial or municipal one — and there is no obligation for the Mounties to continue beyond initial contractual provisions that are set to expire in 2032. The federal government is, however, now eyeing new models for RCMP contracts across Canada.

Citizens need effective policing

Caught up in this ongoing debate on the future of policing in Canada are citizens who require crime prevention, emergency response and general police services.

Police service delivery is becoming fragmented as social tensions rise across the country, including amid ongoing university campus protests that continue to create divisions between the public and the constables who serve them.

The current blue-on-blue battle between competing law enforcement agencies in Surrey, including infighting among unionized officers, does little to strengthen public trust in the rule of law and our police forces.

Rather, it widens the existing divide between individual police officers and the communities they serve — a growing chasm that is increasingly more difficult to bridge and repair.

Period of reform ahead

It’s unlikely the RCMP will continue large-scale provincial and municipal policing operations in perpetuity in Canada.

The next iteration of police reform is on the near horizon. During this reform period, it’s critical to ensure a smooth transition of police power between forces of old and services of new.

Grand Prairie, Alta., has shown how it can be done after a well-planned and executed transition from the RCMP to its own municipal force that avoided controversy and infighting. The transition featured public transparency, timely and effective collaboration among police forces, early planning and a focus on ensuring there were no police service gaps during the switch.

In Surrey, the temperature must be turned down among competing police unions and the elected officials responsible for the transition of power. The Surrey situation is setting a bad example for the rest of Canada.

It’s critical to take stock of our collective societal failures that continue to erode the public’s trust in law enforcement and by extension seriously undermines the overall rule of law in our democracy.

Bryce J. Casavant receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and held fellowship between 2016 and 2020.