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In Surrey, B.C., these days, someone who calls the cops can’t be sure who is going to turn up. It could be a Mountie, or it could be a member of the city’s new municipal service.

The two forces have been operating jointly in Surrey since 2021, after the city decided to stop relying on the RCMP and created its own police department. That transition is now in jeopardy, because of a new mayor who wants to scrap the nascent municipal force and stick with the RCMP, largely because it’s the cheaper option.

The B.C. government has estimated that Surrey’s municipal force will cost $30-million more per year to operate. But that same government is offering Surrey $150-million to continue with the transition, and for good reason: The RCMP’s contract policing service is chronically understaffed in British Columbia, where it serves as the provincial police as well as the local force in some municipalities.

The Surrey RCMP detachment alone had 160 vacancies last April. But that’s a symptom of a wider problem – RCMP detachments across the country are struggling to maintain proper levels of service. Data gathered by the National Post suggested that, nationwide, one in six posts was unfilled as of last February.

Surrey is the poster child for the conundrum created by the RCMP’s contract policing model, in which Mounties serve as the police in most rural and remote areas of Canada (except in Ontario and Quebec), and in some smaller urban centres.

On the one hand, hiring the RCMP to police your town can be a less expensive option, as the B.C. government admits. It also conveniently absolves the local council of any responsibility for the actions of the police. And in many communities in provinces that don’t have a provincial force, it is often the only option.

But these factors have for too long masked a bitter truth about the RCMP’s contract policing service: it is an incompetently managed and outdated relic of another era, operated by a force that has steadfastly refused to address its many failings.

Nowhere were the failings of contract policing more apparent than in the Mounties’ disastrous handling of the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia. The Mass Casualty Commission’s inquiry into the tragedy laid bare the service’s incompetent leadership and lack of proper training – and also pointed out that the RCMP had blithely ignored previous inquiries calling on it to fix its toxic culture, streamline its policies and modernize its techniques.

But perhaps the inquiry’s most telling finding came in a commissioned report that described the Mounties as a “historical remnant of the colonial policing model.”

The RCMP’s “detachment police were and still are intended to stand apart from, or be ‘detached’ from being swayed by, local community politics or public opinion,” the report said.

Communities that rely on the RCMP have no say in staffing levels, no input on local needs and no oversight over policing, because the Mounties are only accountable to a hidebound bureaucracy half-a-country away.

The fact that in the 21st century any police force can operate in small towns and remote communities, many of them with Indigenous populations, without direct accountability or oversight is breathtaking, not to mention undemocratic.

It’s small wonder that a vestige of 19th-century colonial policing that still trains its recruits in a paramilitary fashion, and is notorious for its mistreatment of female officers, is unable to attract enough new members in 2023.

The same conclusion can be drawn from the Mass Casualty Commission’s finding that the RCMP’s guidance for its members in contract policing is in “disarray” and rarely refers “to the legal standards that would be applied to a member’s work” – a situation that “generates the overall impression that the ultimate source of authority for RCMP employees’ activities is the RCMP, rather than Canadian law.”

The B.C. government is absolutely right to push the City of Surrey to continue with its plan to create a post-colonial police force that is answerable to local citizens and to Canadian law, has clear guidelines for the conduct of its officers, is properly staffed and has a modern and diverse approach to recruitment.

The bigger question is, why does anyone living anywhere in Canada have to tolerate anything less than that?

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