There isn't a province in the country in which the RCMP has a shakier reputation than in B.C.
It has been built on the foundation of a number of high-profile incidents, in which the conduct of members of the force has been called into question. The names of Robert Dziekanski and Ian Bush, two men who died in police custody in recent years under questionable circumstances, are firmly etched in the minds of those who live here.
On any given day, it seems, there is a controversy involving the force. Just this week, a petite, 17-year-old aboriginal girl in Williams Lake went public with pictures that showed her face, horribly battered. Jamie Haller said her injuries were caused by an RCMP officer who, she said, repeatedly punched her in the back of a squad car. A detachment commander said there is another side to the story.
So, if British Columbians appear nonplused by threats from Ottawa to withdraw the force unless the provincial government caves in to certain contract demands, there's a good reason; relations between the people and the force are often tense and uneasy.
Many believe the province would be better off with a provincial police force anyway, and were likely heartened when B.C. Solicitor-General Shirley Bond said this week that the option is being considered in light of Ottawa's ultimatum on the contract.
My guess, however, is that her statement is as much a bargaining tactic as was the federal government's pronouncement that it was threatening to pull out of B.C. if the provincial government didn't sign the same RCMP contract recently inked by Alberta and Saskatchewan. That document would not give B.C. the control over policing costs that it is seeking.
B.C., however, is in a much stronger position than other provinces to play hardball with Ottawa regarding the RCMP – and it should.
B.C. has the largest RCMP contingent in the country, employing about 6,000 officers across 60 municipalities. If the Mounties were to desert the province, it would have a devastating impact on their organization and its stature in Canada. It would almost certainly force the RCMP to recast its core mission statement.
B.C.'s position is wholly defensible. It pays the freight for the RCMP's costs in the province and so it should have strong input when it comes to containing those costs. And there is no better example of why that should be the case than the new RCMP headquarters being built in Surrey.
Originally estimated to have a price tag of $300-million, costs on the project have now ballooned to nearly $1-billion.
It was a political scandal when the costs of the new Vancouver convention centre went about $400-million over budget. And yet barely a word has been heard about the massive overruns with the RCMP's new digs. What kind of fools are taxpayers being played for?
Yes, the RCMP is a national police force. And its code of conduct and policing methodologies must be established at a pan-Canadian level in order for there to be some consistency across the country. But the people who pay the costs, through their provincial governments, must have some say in all this, too.
The Mounties have now accepted that they will accede to the powers of the provincial police-complaint process in whichever jurisdiction they are operating. In B.C., they've even agreed to fall under the auspices of an independent investigative body that will look into serious incidents involving police, such as in-custody deaths. No longer will police be allowed to investigate police.
Both these moves are the clear result of the erosion of trust that has occurred between the Mounties and the people. It was the will of the people that forced both these moves.
Now it's time the force accepted a greater degree of financial accountability.
Policing costs represent the most expensive line item in municipal budgets, and municipalities should have the right to monitor, contain and adjust those expenditures as needed. So should the province.
In B.C., those RCMP costs represent nearly a $1-billion of taxpayers' money.
Ottawa has said it will withdraw the RCMP from B.C. by the spring of 2014 if an agreement isn't worked out on its terms. Two-years-plus is plenty of time for B.C. to organize a provincial force, which would likely be filled by those RCMP officers currently stationed here.
Many believe it would be the sensible thing to do in any event.
B.C. should be the one telling Ottawa and the Mounties to take it or leave it. Because my guess is in the end, they'll take whatever they can get.