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Why Ottawa’s decisions over the future of the RCMP could impact B.C.’s own decision in Surrey

Reading between the lines, there were hints that the province’s decision is being guided by concerns of politicians not in Surrey — but in Ottawa.

Province will choose on Wednesday — but the future of RCMP contract policing is in question across Canada

A composite of an RCMP shoulder badge and a Surrey Police Service badge.

In theory, the B.C. government's news conference on Monday was about health-care professionals teaming up with police officers on mental health calls.

In reality, it became the latest example of Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth dodging and weaving multiple questions about what the province plans to do about policing in Surrey.

"I know this is an important decision," said Farnworth, after confirming he would be making an announcement Wednesday about the issue, now in its fifth year of uncertainty.

"And I also know this: policing agencies with either municipalities or the RCMP are professional organizations, and that however the decision comes down on Wednesday, I know [they] are going to continue to do an incredible job."

On the surface, Farnworth's answers left doubt as to whether the province will overrule Surrey and force it to stick with the transition to the Surrey Police Service or allow it to move back to the RCMP.

But reading between the lines, there were hints that the province's decision is being guided by the concerns of politicians not in Surrey — but in Ottawa.

B.C. heavily dependent on RCMP

Hours before Farnworth's news conference, the Toronto Star reported the federal government is considering its own big change for the RCMP, one that would turn it away from on-the-ground policing and towards an FBI-style model focusing on national security and cybercrime issues.

And while that would have national implications, there's one province it would impact more than any other: British Columbia.

"We've for some time been the largest user of RCMP resources in Canada," said former attorney general Wally Oppal.

The RCMP has around 6,000 contract police officers from coast to coast, but nearly half of them are in British Columbia, based on 2019 numbers.

In addition, the province is the only one in Canada where more than 60 per cent of officers are under federal control.

Every other province has either a provincial police force or local forces in all its big cities — but in B.C., many larger communities still rely on RCMP contacts.

It means the province has to be greatly attuned to what the federal government is considering — something Farnworth acknowledged during the news conference.

"I know at the national level, my federal counterpart … it's in his mandate letter to look at, review contract policing," he said.

"Any discussions that take place around the evolution of policing, the reform of policing … it has to recognize that we are facing some significant challenges when it comes to vacancies."

Possible court case looms

If you think those are the words of a public safety minister looking at the Surrey decision through a federal lens, you aren't alone.

"It's going to be a factor," said Oppal, who was chair of the original Surrey police transition task force four years ago.

Simon Fraser University political science lecturer Stewart Prest said the province seems likely to force Surrey to get rid of the RCMP, continuing the transition that began years ago under previous mayor Doug McCallum and risking a possible lawsuit from current mayor, Brenda Locke.

"I expect the city is going to have some hard decisions to make about whether to lay down arms and get on with moving forward or continuing to fight," he said.

Municipalities fighting with provincial governments usually doesn't work out in favour of the municipality — the most recent high-profile example being Ontario Premier Doug Ford's decision to reduce the number of councillors in Toronto — but Locke has made retaining the RCMP the signature element of her leadership.

It may be a battle between city and province. But it could well be the first domino of a federal debate.

"What we are seeing in Surrey right now may play out on a larger stage … with the support of the federal government," said Prest.

"Is the RCMP the force of Canada's future? Can it be attentive to local concerns?"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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