BC’s Conservation Service is a police service. They dress like police, drive similar cars, carry assault rifles & have police-like powers under the Police Act. But conservation officers have no independent oversight. This must change.
The lack of oversight has created space for the abuse of power & toxicity and direct government control of BC Conservation Service. Despite calls for reform & constabulary independence, the Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth has failed to take action.
The Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act raised this issue a year ago & still nothing has changed. The BC NDP must recognize that conservation officers need a safe & transparent workplace to effectively protect our environment, wildlife & local communities.
Serious crimes need investigation & this government’s loitering is threatening public safety & the hundreds of people we ask to do this dangerous work. BC needs urgent action to ensure its well-armed conservation service is accountable & subject to proper oversight.
I asked the Minister of Public Safety about independent oversight of the B.C. Conservation Service. The BCCOS website says: “Conservation officers are highly trained, dedicated individuals responsible for enforcing 33 federal and provincial statutes. They hold special provincial constable status under the Police Act and have unrestricted appointment to enforce acts and statutes and protect the public and preserve the peace.”
They dress like police, drive police-like vehicles, use police-like tactics, carry police-like assault rifles, have all the powers under the Police Act, but are not subject to police-like independent oversight and have no constabulary independence. They are directly responsible to the Minister of the Environment.
The Minister of Public Safety responded that incidents with weapons should go to the independent investigations office, and issues around toxicity of culture should go to the public service agency, but section 6 of the Police Act states: “The Public Service Act does not apply to…special provincial constables” while in the course of exercising a constabulary duty.
So is the Public Service Agency acting like the police complaints commissioner for special constables? When I tried to ask them that question, I got rerouted back to the BCCOS chief and the Ministry of the Environment.
My question is to the Minister of Public Safety. He says his ministry is working on trying to fix the shocking lack of oversight. The Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act raised this issue a year ago, and still nothing. When will he act?
Hon. M. Farnworth:
I appreciate the question from the member. As I have stated previously in this House and in the estimates process, there are changes coming to the Police Act this fall. There will be the first phase, which will be dealing with governance and accountability, and I’m expecting to table that legislation this fall.
It’s been a year of lack of oversight for the B.C. Conservation Service. The antiquated legislation unleashes the authority of the Minister of the Environment to direct a provincial policing agency, the B.C. Conservation Service, in environmental investigations, investigations of serious and potential serious environmental crime like Mount Polley, and large-scale forestry non-compliances.
To admit the BCCOS is a fully functional and unrestricted environmental policing agency, it limits the powers of the Public Service Agency and the B.C. General Employees Union, restricting the B.C. NDP’s ability to access information or influence investigations over environmental crimes. The provincial government would be subject to internal policing reviews of environmental decisions under both the provincial offence provision and, perhaps, the Criminal Code of Canada. We’re starting to see why it’s taken a year for this to happen.
Constabulary independence should be enforced as a cardinal principle of our democracy and rule of law, just as the Minister of Public Safety reminds me, often, in this House about the rule of law. Conservation officers who put their lives on the line every day must know that they have a safe place to do their police work on environmental matters, and currently, they do not.
My question is, again, to the Minister of Public Safety. The Police Act is his responsibility. He’s currently allowing this heavily armed service with all the powers of police but no independent oversight to be under the direct control of his colleague, the Minister of the Environment. Serious crimes need investigation, and his loitering is threatening the safety of the public and the people who do this work. Does he support the status quo?
Hon. M. Farnworth:
There’s a lot in that question. I will answer it this way. First off, we have a very professional conservation service in the province of British Columbia, composed of men and women who do their job effectively, and they take that job seriously. As I outlined to the member during estimates, if there was an issue, for example, with a firearm, their independent investigations office has every ability to investigate, which they would.
At the same time, I have also outlined that there are changes coming in terms of the Police Act, in part, on the work of the all-party committee. I can tell the member, as I said in estimates, there has been a significant amount of work underway on those changes in terms of consultation not only with stakeholders, Indigenous nations, but communities right across the province, hon. Member. And a key part of those changes that I said are coming in the fall deal with issues of governance and accountability, which includes oversight. The work has been underway. It has been thorough. There are changes coming in the fall.
I can tell the member that we have very professional conservation officers in this province, and they do an amazing job.