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Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol the streets in High River, Alta. on June 29, 2013.Todd Korol/Reuters

Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro says he repeatedly gets asked why his government is looking at creating a provincial police service.

It should be no surprise he faces the question. The ruling United Conservative Party continues to be far from upfront about the costs, small-town mayors are coming out of the woodwork to cast doubt on the plan and nobody seems to really understand why it’s such a big priority for outgoing Premier Jason Kenney’s government.

Last week, the Justice Minister released a model for an Alberta police service that would bolster the ranks of front-line police officers in small municipalities and remote areas. The proposed approach could help ease unaddressed rural crime concerns, and it would be tailored, he said, to meet the needs of Indigenous communities.

Much of this would be welcomed, and Alberta is not outlandish in considering the plan. Ontario and Quebec already show that having a provincial police force is workable. The idea of adopting the model has also been been raised recently in other provinces, including British Columbia. There is a wider Canadian debate about local control and oversight of the RCMP, and the Alberta government correctly argues that policing, almost everywhere, is undergoing a re-think.

Alberta promises hundreds more officers for rural municipalities with provincial police plan

Canada’s national police force is simply stretched too thin, Mr. Shandro said: “The RCMP is responsible for national priorities like border security, organized crime, cyber terrorism. And at the same time, the RCMP is also responsible for traffic stops in small-town Alberta.”

But the messaging to the public on why the government is pursuing this plan is muddled. Originally, this push was framed in the context of getting a “Fair Deal” for the province and asserting Alberta’s authority in the realm of policing alongside other issues such as taxation, pension plans and energy. Now, the provincial government has opened a new line of argument, and says such a plan is just common sense when it’s clear Ottawa wants to get out of contract policing and the associated costs.

Right now, the province and municipalities cover 70 per cent of the total cost of the RCMP, while the federal government covers up to 30 per cent of costs. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the total cost of RCMP services in Alberta was about $672-million, of which the federal government paid about $170-million.

Alberta gets this policing money now. But Mr. Shandro says it’s inevitable the federal government will try to get provinces to pay 100 per cent of the costs when the RCMP contract is up for renegotiation in 2032.

While Ottawa hasn’t raised the possibility of ending its subsidy for the RCMP, the Alberta government points to a parliamentary committee report on systemic racism in policing that argued the federal government explore the possibility of ending contract policing within the national force. Mr. Shandro also referenced federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s mandate letter that asked him to conduct an assessment of contract policing.

On the basis that federal dollars are likely to end anyway, as well as the lack of control the province has over RCMP salary negotiations, Mr. Shandro insists any debate about the costs are “a red herring.” This follows the Alberta government releasing a cost analysis of the provincial police plan last October that didn’t directly address the fact that a future such service would be fully paid for by the province.

Instead of casting into the future – and speculating as to what the federal government will do in a decade – Mr. Shandro should just be transparent about the province having to foot the whole bill and say it’s worth it. Not doing so contributes to the mistrust of both the proposed model, and the UCP government as a whole.

On that note, the mayors in the towns and cities affected are far from behind the plan. For example, Nanton Mayor Jennifer Handley tweeted this week: “Rural Alberta Mayor here. We. Do. Not. Want. An. Alberta. Police. Force. Just in case our formal and informal communications have not been clear enough.” The two associations representing the province’s municipalities large and small remain unconvinced. The Rural Municipalities of Alberta, for one, said their concerns – including the policing costs municipalities will have to bear – remain.

The Alberta government says no decision has yet been made. But it’s clear that as Mr. Kenney prepares to depart the premier’s office, his government continues to work away on key agenda items. It could all be a moot point by this fall, as there will be a new UCP leader – who will become premier – in October. Candidates Travis Toews, Danielle Smith and Todd Loewen are a clear yes on an Alberta police service, but others in the race are cooler to or against the idea.

There can still be no doubt of the political element to the policing issue. Despite Mr. Shandro’s argument this week that a provincial police service plan is not about a fight with Ottawa, it still appears driven by the desire to counter claims from party members that Mr. Kenney’s leadership in dealing with the federal government – which most view as combative – has been too passive. In particular, Ms. Smith, seen as a leading candidate, has garnered strong support from UCP members who share this belief.

In a revealing comment, Mr. Shandro told reporters last week he disagrees with the critique from some party members, and leadership candidates, that Mr. Kenney has spent his time in office only sending a series of strongly worded letters to the federal government.

He added, “You know, there is one letter that would be different from all the others. And that would be the letter that gives notice to Ottawa that Alberta is taking back responsibility for policing.”

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