BONNYVILLE – A quiet battle for the support of Alberta municipalities is taking place across the province when it comes to whether or not a provincial police force should be pursued to replace law enforcement services provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
Mounties operate out of 113 detachments across Alberta and provide law enforcement services to 42 per cent of the province’s population, predominately in rural jurisdictions.
On Feb. 16, the National Police Federation (NPF), under the slogan “Keep Alberta RCMP,” was the first special interest group to present to Lakeland area residents and elected officials during a public engagement session held at the Bonnyville and District Centennial Centre.
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The conversation on provincial policing was sparked following the UCP government’s Fair Deal Panel, which found that 35 per cent of Albertans supported the development of an Alberta police force, similar to that of Ontario and Quebec.
In October of 2020, the Government of Alberta moved forward with a $2 million feasibility study completed by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) on the topic.
“Their report found the concept was realistic, cost-effective and worth further study,” states the government’s website referring to the report that was publicly released in November of 2021 titled APPS Transition Study.
The website goes on to say, “The policing model proposes new approaches to service delivery and governance that could better address root causes of crime, increase accountability, and put more frontline personnel in communities across Alberta at equal or lower cost.”
Not all stakeholders and municipalities that have reviewed the report agree.
Currently, Alberta RCMP costs the province $595 million annually, of which 30 per cent, roughly $188 million, is provided by the federal government. The remaining 70 per cent is cost shared between municipalities and the provincial government.
The two models proposed by the government would cost Albertans an estimated $734 million or $759 million without any contributions from the federal government while hiring about 100 fewer officers, according to the most recent report released in November.
Attending last Wednesday’s event were several elected officials from the Town of Bonnyville, Cold Lake, Elk Point and others, along with several members of the public.
With such a significant proposed change, people are going to be concerned about safety and question if there will be the same level of protection and services as provided by the RCMP, City of Cold Lake’s mayor, Craig Copeland told Lakeland This Week following the NPF’s presentation.
“The City of Cold Lake’s position as council has been to be neutral on it. We wanted to gather all of the information,” Copeland said, noting that council members will also be attending a provincial meeting on the same topic on March 3 in Bonnyville.
The government is carrying out stakeholder engagement sessions throughout the province that include municipal and Indigenous governments, law enforcement organizations, public safety partners such as victim services organizations and rural crime watch groups.
Unlike the NPF engagement sessions, the province’s presentations are not open to the public. Albertans will, however, get their chance to participate in a survey on the topic in early 2022.
“Right now, it’s just trying to understand the facts from a distance,” Copeland said. “For us the concern will be: is this going to result in more cost for the City of Cold Lake’s taxpayers. But also, if the province is taking over the police force, where are (they) going to get all the trained professionals and talent from?”
Alberta RCMP’s current staffing levels include 3,097 fully trained RCMP officers, 190 civilian members, and 743 public service employees.
“As we heard the other day from the RCMP, they were not very optimistic that many (RCMP members) are going to jump over to a provincial police force,” Copeland said.
‘Bigger fish to fry’
While he doesn’t feel council has enough information to speak on that matter yet, Copeland did acknowledge he would prefer the provincial government focus on other areas related to rural law enforcement.
“I would like to see the province first address some of the other issues that we've been speaking to for years, which is the prosecution, the lack of incarceration, mental health, court time, and lawyers for the prosecution’s side,” he listed.
“Too many people are getting timed out and their charges are getting dropped. I think we have a bigger fish to fry than just jumping in and saying, ‘The province should take over the police force’... I don't know if we really need to go down this rabbit hole, but our council is here to seek to understand from the province’s standpoint.”
The conversation around funding policing in Cold Lake has started to weigh even heavier on the municipality following the city’s population growth, which has risen to over 15,000 residents.
“We are now going to be paying for 90 per cent of our policing in Cold Lake, before we were 70 per cent. So, that's a dramatic change for us financially – we are talking hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of new money that will be in our budget now that (the municipality) has to pay, and the province doesn't. We want to understand this better because it really impacts us now,” said the mayor.
Following the government's stakeholder meeting, Copeland says a decision to send a letter of support for or against the creation of an Alberta police force to the Minister of Justice and Solicitor General will likely be added to an upcoming agenda.
“This has a lot of momentum, and I don't know if we need to be doing this at this time. There must be a reason that the government wants to do this and I'm looking forward to learning those reasons why,” he added.
Who is paying the bill?
The mayor for the Town of Bonnyville had similar concerns.
“Without that (federal) funding, where is that extra money going to lie? Is it going to lie with the municipalities, is the government going to pick that up?” Mayor Elisa Brosseau questioned.
“It will be interesting to hear the government's side where they feel they'll be able to pick up those costs.”
Besides the annual operational costs, Brosseau wants to see numbers on the “one-time hard costs of the changeover.”
And while the Town’s council hasn’t formed a decision on whether they support the formation of a provincial police force, Brosseau notes that council is happy with the service that is being provided to the community by RCMP members.
“It's definitely a hot topic among municipalities right now... we are all in the same boat,” she said. “We all want to make sure we have the right information so that whatever way the province decides to go, we are well informed.”