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Dale Culver, a member of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en First Nations, died in police custody in 2017 in Prince George.Debbie Pierre/The Canadian Press

B.C.’s Public Safety Minister says he will introduce legislation this year to strengthen police accountability, as a trial of two RCMP officers accused of manslaughter in the death of an Indigenous man in Prince George six years ago is set to begin.

Mike Farnworth told reporters on Monday he is preparing changes to the Police Act that will be based on an all-party report of the legislature that called for the creation of a new, single civilian-led oversight agency responsible for overseeing conduct, complaints, investigations and disciplinary matters for all police and public safety personnel in the province.

“This is to ensure that investigations – such as we’ve seen in the situation in Prince George – don’t take as long as they have in the past,” he said, “and that the system works to ensure that there’s justice in place, because as we have seen, Indigenous people are significantly overrepresented in our correctional facilities, and in too many cases, have suffered fatalities. And that’s simply not acceptable.”

Two Prince George RCMP officers who have been charged with manslaughter in the death of Dale Culver, a member of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en First Nations, are set to go to a first hearing on Tuesday. It is the first time in the Independent Investigations Office’s history that officers in B.C. have been charged in the death of an Indigenous person.

Mr. Culver was arrested in Prince George on July 18, 2017, after police were called about a man allegedly lurking around vehicles in a suspicious way. The IIO, which recommended charges, concluded that the 35-year-old was pepper-sprayed during a struggle and had trouble breathing. An ambulance was called and, once it arrived, he collapsed after being taken out of a police car. He was pronounced dead shortly after.

The BC Prosecution Service announced on Feb. 1 that constables Paul Ste-Marie and Jean Francois Monette were charged with manslaughter. Sergeant Jon Eusebio Cruz and constables Arthur Dalman and Clarence MacDonald are accused of attempting to obstruct justice.

An investigation by The Globe and Mail found that manslaughter charges against police officers in B.C. are an extreme rarity.

Since its 2012 launch, the IIO has investigated 220 deaths and recommended that charges be laid in 14 cases. The Crown, which in B.C. is responsible for laying charges, took only one of those to trial, the data show. That officer, who was accused of manslaughter, was found not guilty in 2020.

Ronald MacDonald, head of the IIO, has described the delay in laying charges in the death of Mr. Culver as unacceptable and unfair. In an interview Monday, he said he is encouraged that the province is looking at changes which could address such delays.

“The fix, from our point of view, is to appropriately resource our office so that we are able to respond in a timely and thorough way to all of our cases,” he said. “The position of government lately has been much more encouraging on that front, so I’m looking forward to some changes that are going to help out quite a bit.”

Last April, an all-party committee appointed to reform the province’s Police Act delivered a report that found that police oversight is fragmented and should be handled by a single oversight agency. The province has an Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner for municipal police issues, while the RCMP has a Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. The civilian-led IIO is responsible for conducting investigations into police-related incidents of death or serious harm.

“Different agencies with different mandates, authorities and processes responsible for police oversight in B.C. has resulted in inefficiencies, gaps and duplication,” the committee found. “Further, there is a lack of trust of police due in part to a lack of transparency and accountability as well as a complaints process that is difficult to navigate.”