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Why Alberta is considering severing ties with the RCMP

One of the major bullet points emerging from Premier Jason Kenney's speech in Red Deer on Saturday was a proposal to establish a provincial police force.

Premier Jason Kenney announced Saturday the possibility of implementing a provincial police force

Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta would examine whether or not it should end its relationship with the RCMP during his keynote address to close the Manning Conference in Red Deer, Alta., on Saturday. (CBC, Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press)

One of the major bullet points emerging from Premier Jason Kenney's speech in Red Deer on Saturday was a proposal to establish a provincial police force.

If the measure were to find support, Alberta would join Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador as the only provinces to operate a provincial police force outside of the RCMP.

"We will invite the panel to explore the feasibility of establishing an Alberta provincial police force by ending the Alberta Police Service Agreement with the Government of Canada," Kenney said during his speech.

Like much of what was announced Saturday, establishing a provincial police force is part of a bigger strategy to give Alberta greater autonomy from Ottawa.

"As Canada, at various times in history, has moved in the direction of having [provinces] who are looking for a bigger stake in their own governance, taking control of policing is important for those governments," said Michael Kempa, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa. "It's a key component of the administration of justice, and something they would prefer not to leave to the federal government."

But beyond a larger strategy of seeking to move powers from federal to provincial jurisdiction, how would police services be impacted in the province were this move to occur?

More control

Outside of municipal police services in Alberta like those in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta contracts its provincial police services from the RCMP. 

As a federal police force operating across all of Canada, the responsibilities assigned to the RCMP are numerous — and that's a challenge for any police service, Kempa said.

One agency may not be able to do all of those policing functions particularly well.- Michael Kempa, University of Ottawa criminology professor

"There's been a raging debate around the RCMP for more than two decades as to whether or not they can continue to focus on federal policing issues alongside contracted provincial and sometimes municipal policing issues as well," Kempa said. "One agency may not be able to do all of those different policing functions particularly well."

Part of the appeal for a province seeking to distance itself from Ottawa is the centralization of police administration, according to Robert Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University.

"It results in significant improvements because you're working with a single system. Theoretically, it doesn't involve Ottawa … there is far, far greater levels of control and accountability where everything is being dealt with out of Edmonton, or if you wanted, Calgary," Gordon said. "Whereas at the moment, policing, priorities and standards are all driven by Ottawa.

"And of course, that is the last thing that an independent Alberta will want to have."

RCMP representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Higher costs

Any move to establish a provincial police force is likely to cost more, especially in its initial stages.

"It would cost more money, no doubt about that," Gordon said. "And I'm not talking about startup money. You're talking millions to transition over because you have to repaint the cars, change the uniforms, all that sort of stuff."

Ongoing costs would also likely be higher than contracting policing out to the RCMP, Gordon said.

"They will be higher partly because provincial and municipal police services and non-RCMP are paid more highly," he said. "[Here in British Columbia], if we were to switch over it wouldn't be a hugely complicated thing to do, and we've got the resources and the infrastructure in place, but I don't know about Alberta."

It would cost more money, no doubt about that.- Robert Gordon, Simon Fraser University criminology professor

Despite those initial costs, Kempa said the presence of a local force could provide a return on investment.

"Even if you end up spending a little more, the hope would be that if you have it under provincial jurisdiction and directly accountable to local provincial police accountability bodies, you're going to get a policing service tailored to the preferences, needs and standards of your territory," he said.

Alberta has had its own police force before — the Alberta Provincial Police operated in the province from 1917 until 1932. It was replaced by the RCMP in 1932 as a cost-savings measure during the Great Depression, according to the Archives Society of Alberta.

As part of Kenney's speech on Saturday, he reiterated a campaign pledge to create an Alberta Parole Board and take over responsibility for inmates from the Parole Board of Canada.

In such a scenario, existing correctional facilities would likely be restaffed, Gordon said.

"What you would find is that most of the existing federal staff would be staying in those facilities, and you could come to some kind of cost-sharing arrangement with the feds to ensure that there's adequate coverage," Gordon said. "I don't see that as being a huge issue at all, in comparison with the policing side."

Other measures the new Fair Deal Panel will study include:

  • Establishing a provincial revenue agency by ending Alberta's Federal-Provincial Tax Collection Agreement.
  • Withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and establishing a provincial plan.
  • Opting out of federal cost-sharing programs.
  • Seeking an exchange of tax points for federal cash transfer.
  • Establishing a formal provincial constitution. 
  • Appointing a Chief Firearms Office for the province.

The panel is set to hold a series of consultations between Nov. 16 and Jan. 30, before completing a report to government by March 31.

With files from Sarah Rieger

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