In the spring and summer of 2020, policing was under the microscope in North America. While the United States was roiled by protests calling for change after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, there were also troubling incidents in Canada.
Just months apart, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a young Black woman in Toronto, and Chantel Moore, a young Indigenous woman in New Brunswick, died during wellness checks being conducted by police. In Kelowna, B.C., surveillance video emerged showing an RCMP officer dragging and stepping on a young woman in the midst of a mental health crisis.
In Vancouver, the city’s council and mayor were discovering how little power they had over their own police force.
After hearing from dozens of speakers about the harmful effects of street checks — the practice of stopping someone who is not part of a criminal investigation — city council voted to ask the police board to stop the practice, but the board showed little interest. When city council attempted to freeze the Vancouver Police Department’s 2021 budget at 2020 levels, that decision was ultimately overturned by the province’s director of police services — who is himself a former police officer.
To respond to the calls for change, the province struck an all-party committee in 2020 to hear from advocates about policing in British Columbia and what needs to change. That committee released its report last week, and it calls for some big changes: the end of RCMP policing in B.C., handing control over policing to Indigenous communities and increasing funding and resources for non-police responses to people who are in mental health crises.
The report is being well-received by Indigenous leaders, mental health organizations and local governments — but, they say, to actually make a difference, the province will actually have to act on the recommendations, and provide the funding to make sure new services have enough resources.
Here’s how policing in British Columbia could change if the province acts on the recommendations.
1) No more RCMP
Currently, most municipalities across B.C. — from cities to small towns — contract the RCMP to provide policing. The committee recommends replacing B.C.’s reliance on the national police service with its own provincial police force.
That police force wouldn’t replace B.C.’s existing 12 municipal police services, although the committee did mull the benefits of creating regional police forces.
“There was recognition that the fragmentation of policing services across the province has gaps, and frankly lives have been lost,” said Adam Olsen, a Green Party MLA and member of the Tsartlip Nation who was a member of the all-party committee.
In its report, the committee says that while municipalities that have their own police service have some control through a police board, there’s no similar governance mechanism for communities that are policed by the RCMP. Ultimately, governance decisions for the RCMP are made in Ottawa, not B.C.
Olsen warned that creating an alternative provincial police service could take up to a decade.
“We've made it very clear that should we create a provincial police service that replaces the RCMP, it's incumbent upon the provincial government to have a very collaborative process with local governments, regional governments, First Nations governments, with respect to regional services in how the variety of the kind of patchwork of policing that exists right now needs [to be] replaced,” he said.
2) A new approach to mental health calls
After campaigning for decades for a change in who responds to people in mental health crisis, advocates say they’re embracing the recommendations that call for a community-led response. There are currently services, like Car 87 in Vancouver, that pair a mental health professional with a police officer, but those services are limited and are often not available when calls for help are made. Integrated Mobile Crisis Response Teams, in operation in Victoria, include nurses, counsellors, child and mental health clinicians and police officers — but the teams can’t respond to every crisis because of limited resources.
But Jonny Morris, the CEO of the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said the Mental Health Act must be reformed alongside the Police Act.
“The Mental Health Act in many ways defines police as the conveyor of people to facilities,” Morris said.
B.C. Attorney General David Eby has promised to start a “significant modernization” of the Mental Health Act. While other recommendations from the policing committee could take years, Olsen said a comprehensive review of the Mental Health Act is something government can get started on right away.
“There is no need for the provincial government to delay any longer in a top-to-bottom review,” he said.
Christine Boyle, a Vancouver city councillor, also called for a range of investments to address complex social issues, including “a continuum of care for mental health issues, significant funding to build affordable and supportive housing, increasing social assistance rates, decriminalizing the personal possession of drugs and ramping up access to safe supply.”
3) Indigenous-led policing
Olsen said Indigenous people in British Columbia are over-policed when it comes to street checks, police use of force and incarceration, but Indigenous victims of crime are underprotected by police.
While there may have been an assumption that Indigenous leaders would come to the committee and say, “we don’t want policing, that’s not what we heard,” Olsen said.
Many First Nations in B.C. have community agreements with local RCMP detachments or police forces, but still struggle with lack of policing resources and a lack of long-term planning.
The committee is recommending that Indigenous communities play a much larger part in policing and governance.
“There was frustration that was shared repeatedly that Indigenous nations did not have the kind of relationships, that it's not a priority of the RCMP, to create the relationships Indigenous nations wanted,” Olsen said.
“One of the pieces that I'm very excited about is that we've actually said that a decolonized perspective would be that anybody could provide a policing service — maybe the local First Nation has a police service and polices the neighbouring municipality or regional district.”
4) Who controls the police
Boyle said there’s nothing in the committee’s recommendations that deals specifically with the problem Vancouver experienced, when a city council was told it couldn’t say no to a request for a budget increase from its police department.
But other governance issues are part of the recommendations. Cities and towns with their own police forces usually have a police board, with most members appointed by the provincial government. The committee is calling for changes: removing the requirement that the chair of the police board be the mayor, and ensuring there is wider representation from the community on those boards.
Last June, Vancouver’s mayor, Kennedy Stewart, announced he would no longer speak on behalf of the police board he chairs because of its inaction on systemic racism. While the mayor is nominally the chair, the position has little power. The mayor can’t table or amend board motions and can only vote if there is a tie. Critics have complained that Vancouver’s police board is not transparent and doesn’t adequately represent the community: aside from the chair, six positions are appointed by the province and one is appointed by city council.
In its report, the committee said it heard that the “structure puts mayors in a difficult position, particularly concerning the police budget, as mayors have responsibilities to the police board and department and to their municipalities.”
Boyle said she’d heard similar complaints from other municipalities during meetings with other local government leaders at the Union of BC Municipalities.
“The details and nuances are different than Vancouver, but the larger issue of control and oversight and accountability are certainly shared between places like Vancouver and municipalities with the RCMP,” Boyle said.