ATHABASCA — The idea of replacing the RCMP with a provincial police force in Alberta has received mixed reviews from residents and elected officials since the UCP came to power in 2019, but with the recent release of the PwC report that found the concept to be "realistic, cost-effective and worth further study," the organization representing nearly 20,000 RCMP members across the country is making sure its perspective on the issue is being heard by the public.
Representatives from the National Police Federation (NPF) were in both Athabasca and Westlock Jan. 10 for public presentations, both of which were attended by Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken. Moving to a provincially administered police force has raised concerns about not only the cost, but how ongoing cases, infrastructure needs and more would be handled.
van Dijken says he can envision an Alberta with its own police force, if the timing is right.
“I participated because I wanted to hear what people were saying,” van Dijken said Jan. 13. “I was not there to interfere with the presentation at all and I've been discussing it with my municipal councils as part of some of the conversations that have been going on, so the discussion has to continue. I think it's a good conversation that we're having.”
van Dijken said he is trying to determine if Alberta is ready to take on a police force which will be focused solely on provincial crime and allow the RCMP to investigate federal crimes, something he feels can split the RCMP focus as they follow both provincial and federal mandates at the same time.
“(RCMP are) charged with border security controls, national security, counter terrorism, organized crime, criminal intelligence, that kind of thing,” he said. “The federal government has said, ‘Well, we'll do it at 30 per cent (cost sharing) because we recognize that we would have a cost anyways.’ So, in that, the RCMP are doing their work as well as our work. Just because they're in Alberta doesn't mean their focus is 100 per cent Alberta.”
van Dijken is taking the pulse of the communities in his constituency and said he has heard perspectives from many angles.
“It varies, some are still waiting for more information, wanting to have more discussion. Others have said, ‘Yeah no, we're pretty confident with where the RCMP has come in the last number of years, that we're getting better engagement with them,’” he said.
He has seen those improvements himself in the six years he’s been MLA.
“I’ve definitely seen an improvement in our communities with focus between the RCMP and contact with their municipal governments,” said van Dijken. “There's definitely been a positive increase in that relationship. So, I think that's evolved and it has been good.”
And he points out, even with a provincial police service, it’s not like the RCMP are going away, some will remain in Alberta to work on federal law enforcement.
“They still have a responsibility as a national police force to do their job within Alberta and that would continue alongside a provincial police force,” he said. “The RCMP members who stay in the province of Alberta will be paid for by the federal government because it would be their federal responsibility.”
Having a provincial force may also speed up communication allowing for faster response times, he said.
“When we look at the chain of command … RCMP K Division in Alberta they answer to national headquarters, national headquarters answers to the federal government and we do have input, absolutely we have input on contract services within Alberta but that is one of the concerns; that it's slower to react,” he said.
“Even with the rural crime issue it took a lot of time to get to a point where the RCMP were getting more fully engaged with the communities. It took a lot of time before we started to actually see significant focus on the rural crime issue, and so can we be more reactive to that with a provincial police force? I would think so.”
For now, the government is watching places like Surrey, B.C., which is transitioning to a municipal police force and is having trouble recruiting and is facing ballooning costs from an estimated $19 million to over $80 million.
“My take on all this is, can we do a transition without any hiccups? That's the biggest thing,” said van Dijken. “I've looked at what's going on in Surrey and there's been a lot of hiccups there, but I don't know that we can necessarily interpret that transition in Surrey as being the same as going to a provincial police force.”
Premier Jason Kenney promised the question would be put to a referendum, but it was not part of the Oct. 18, 2021 election which did include a question about time change. However, there will be government-led information sessions starting in February with two scheduled in Westlock and Athabasca for Feb. 17.
“It's an important discussion because we've grown significantly over the last 20, 30 years in Alberta,” van Dijken said.