British Columbia

B.C. had a provincial police force once before. Why did it vanish?

More than 70 years after the first B.C. Provincial Police force was dissolved, the issue of who is best suited to police the province hit the legislature again this week.

B.C. Provincial Police was absorbed by the RCMP in 1950, after 92 years

Members of the British Columbia Provincial Police are seen on the steps of the Vancouver courthouse in the 1930s. More than 70 years after the force was dissolved, the issue of who is best suited to police the province hit the legislature again this week. (Image J-00088 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum)

Standing before the B.C. Legislature on March 27, 1950, then-attorney general Gordon Wismer launched a passionate argument for replacing the provincial police force with the RCMP.

Bringing in the Mounties would make policing more efficient, boost national security and save the provincial government more than $1 million, he said. Police officers themselves, he insisted, didn't have reason to worry – they would end up with better training, better pay and better pensions with the RCMP.

One newspaper columnist said it was Wismer's "finest, most determined" defence of a government plan to date. But many, including police officers themselves, were still bewildered when the B.C. Provincial Police was abruptly shut down that August.

More than 70 years later, the issue of who is best suited to police B.C. reached the legislature again on Thursday. A committee of MLAs had agreed, unanimous across party lines, that the province should ditch the RCMP and re-establish a provincial police force.

B.C. Attorney General Gordon Wismer, right, is pictured around 1940. Wismer introduced the bill that would later shut down the B.C. Provincial Police in 1950. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Decision to switch to RCMP

The B.C. Provincial Police (BCPP), created at Fort Langley in 1858 to police the new colony of British Columbia, had more than 520 officers in 123 police departments across the province when it was dissolved at midnight on Aug. 15, 1950. 

The change did not go over entirely well. At least 11 officers resigned, rather than move to the RCMP. Dozens of municipalities from Vancouver Island to the Kootenays who felt excluded from negotiations wrote scathing letters to MLAs for their "secrecy." 

In one newspaper editorial, readers demanded the "common courtesy" of a better explanation for the decision.

"[The province had] not one iota of a mandate from the electors to hand the scheme in the way it was, without discussing the full pros and cons in the legislature," read the letter in the Times Colonist.

"That all this is being swept away almost overnight without any sanction from the people of British Columbia on strength of a blanket bill rammed through a too trusting legislature seems incredible."

Don N. Brown, a Second World War veteran who spent three years with the BCPP before its dissolution, was determined to find out why the province had shut down the force. He was among the officers who transferred to the RCMP and retired as a superintendent after 27 years.

In his book, published in 2000, Brown outlined a number of theories he'd researched: the province mistakenly believed the RCMP would be cheaper, politicians worried the BCPP would unionize, the force was losing members to the military or the federal government wanted police in B.C. to help stop communism.

Brown didn't buy any of them.

B.C. Provincial Police Constable W.B. Stewart receives the King's Police Medal for Gallantry in Vancouver in 1946. (City of Vancouver Archives)

"Despite the excuses ... there is absolutely no meaningful reason for the disestablishment of a police force recognized by all as courageous, compassionate and well experienced in the policing of not only the rugged wilderness of British Columbia, but also a recognized police force in the policing of large, populated urban areas," wrote Brown, who died in 2009.

In his final pages, Brown recommended B.C. restart a provincial police force.

"I think that it would be an impossibility to reconstruct a provincial police force similar in nature to that which was destroyed in 1950. It is a different world to what it was then," Brown wrote. "[But] this would be the ideal."

B.C. Provincial Police members Henry Avison, Deputy Insp. T.W.S. Parsons and Chief Const. A. McNeill at South Fort George, near Prince George, B.C., in 1918. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Every few years since, politicians have spoken up to say the same — but each time, the debate faded away.

Wally Oppal, a former B.C. Supreme Court justice and attorney general, has supported the notion of a single province-wide police agency since the mid-1990s. Regardless of whether B.C. stays with RCMP or returns to a provincial policing model, he said, public trust in the process and the product will be key if reform is going to succeed in the modern age.

"Police agencies, or any other kind of agency, they're going to have any kind of credibility, there has to be some kind of local accountability," Oppal said Thursday. 

"The days of governments on high making decisions without any kind of participation from local community, and particularly the Indigenous communities, really, those days are gone."