Alberta Premier Jason Kenney recently raised the possibility of implementing a provincial police service.
“We will invite the panel to explore the feasibility of establishing an Alberta provincial police force by ending the Alberta Police Service Agreement with the government of Canada,” he said.
That statement was followed by an announcement by Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer that Alberta was set to contract an additional 300 uniformed RCMP officers to join detachments and specialized RCMP units across the province. That would increase the complement of RCMP officers from 1,600 to 1,900.
“This is the largest single investment in rural policing since the March West,” when hundreds of North-West Mounted Police officers travelled across the Prairies in 1874, Schweitzer told CBC News.
These conflicting statements may signal an internal debate about where Alberta wants to go with its policing obligations. While Kenney’s statement may have been part of a larger strategy to signal Alberta’s desire to gain greater autonomy from Ottawa, it raises important considerations.
Policing in Canada is administered on three levels: municipal, provincial, and federal. There are 141 stand-alone municipal police services and 36 First Nations self-administered services.
There are also three provincial police services: the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC), the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and Sûreté du Québec (SQ).
The RCMP is responsible for all federal policing matters, including contract policing to provinces without their own provincial services – including Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
It’s the responsibility of the provinces to ensure adequate and effective policing is maintained throughout their jurisdictions.
Where provincial police services exist, smaller municipalities may contract with the province for policing services, governed by a municipal police services boards.
Self-administered First Nations police services are created under agreements between the federal, provincial and territorial governments under a cost-sharing agreemen. The communities are responsible for governing the police service.
British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were initially under the stewardship of the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP).
By 1916-17, conflicting interests over enforcement of provincial anti-liquor laws and the wartime national security priorities of the federal government, particularly in the Western Canada, resulted in the replacement of the RNWMP with the Alberta Provincial Police (APP) and the Saskatchewan Provincial Police (SPP).
However, during the Great Depression, Saskatchewan’s concerns about the cost of three tiers of policing (municipal, provincial and federal) led it to return to contracting with the RCMP in 1928. Alberta and Manitoba followed Saskatchewan, returning to contract policing in 1932.
The British Columbia Provincial Police (BCPP), created in 1858, remained in place until 1950, when B.C. also contracted its provincial policing to the RCMP. Similar agreements followed in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Policing is far more than just about crime control. From a socio-cultural perspective, police are guardians of the communities they protect, but they’re also symbols of the values of the societies they represent.
How police organizations are structured, governed, and how they uphold the rights of citizens and stakeholders serve as key elements in earning public trust and contributing to the development of social cohesion and community.
The RCMP is faced with an increasingly complex national and international policing landscape, which in many instances must take priority over provincial, municipal and community policing.
The RCMP must also juggle national and international demands for resources with demands of contracted provide provincial policing.
As well, officers at all levels are motivated by national opportunities for advancement and special assignments.
Policing of First Nations evolved on an ad hoc basis over the years. In many instances, the federal government used the RCMP to enforce social policies like the placement of Indigenous youth in residential schools. That resulted in a loss of trust and ongoing antagonism between First Nations and the RCMP.
Between 1967 and 1990, 25 federal and provincial reports were published that addressed the involvement of Indigenous persons with criminal justice systems. Twenty-two of these offered recommendations that were summarized by the Alberta government, including the importance of expanding policing services to First Nations. These reports have been reflective of Alberta’s ongoing efforts to address criminal justice issues involving First Nations peoples.
Alberta has a significant First Nations population, which will continue to exert increasing influence in provincial affairs. First Nations also experience higher rates of crime and over-representation in the justice systems, all of which exacts a heavy cost on Alberta’s economy.
The RCMP hasn’t lived up to the standards Albertans should expect. It’s failure reflected in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) inquiry is an embarrassing and costly example.
Brenda Lucki, the RCMP commissioner, has offered this apology: “On behalf of myself and my organization, I am truly sorry for the loss of your loved ones and for the pain this has caused you, your families, and your communities. I’m sorry that for too many of you, the RCMP was not the police service you needed it to be during this terrible time in your life.”
Anthony Merchant, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in a proposed $600-million class action against the RCMP over the handling of MMIWG investigations, notes: “there exists a systemic disregard and antipathy.”
As well, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba all report notably higher crime severity indices and crime rates in comparison to their counterparts, with the exception of the territories, which are also policed by the RCMP.
People “simply don’t feel safe right now in their communities,” says Schweitzer. “This is having an incredible toll on so many people across rural Alberta.”
According to a report by Global News, more than $220 million has been spent in the last 20 years by the RCMP on everything from sexual harassment lawsuits to human rights complaints and federal inquiries into nepotism, workplace bullying and turf wars with other police agencies.
Albertans have suffered from elevated crime for far too long. They need to feel safer, to have a better quality of life, and to have confidence in their police. Alberta owes its citizens policing that’s committed to their communities.
Alberta’s policing hasn’t kept up with the needs of the population and its distinct ethnographic needs, social, and economic requirements.
The minister has promised to increase the number of RCMP officers from 1,600 to 1,900 at a cost of $286 million over the next five years. But this alone is unlikely to improve perceived and real concerns for public safety, particularly in rural Alberta.
Alberta is also enacting legislation requiring communities with fewer than 5,000 people to pick up more of the policing tab. The current Provincial Police Service Agreement splits the $374.8-million annual cost of rural RCMP between the provincial government (70 percent) and the federal government (30 percent). Beginning in 2020, counties, municipal districts and small towns will begin paying 10 percent of those costs. Their share will rise every year to reach 30 percent of policing costs by 2023.
Over the next five years, small municipalities are expected to contribute $200 million for policing while the federal government will chip in nearly $86 million. By some estimates, this shift will increase Albertans’ annual taxes by $400.22 each.
These announcements promise more RCMP contract officers and more taxes, but no guarantee anything will change.
Alberta deserves policing by officers who have deep ties, obligations and loyalty to their communities.
Albertans should determine their own policing priorities, including whether it’s time to bring back the Alberta Provincial Police.
Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He served as a police officer for 29 years in various capacities, as well as serving the Ipperwash Inquiry and Interpol.