Estimates 2023: Public Safety & Solicitor General

Jun 3, 2023 | 42-4, Blog, Estimates, Governance, Legislature, Sessions, Video

I have been focusing in on public safety issues since I was included in the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act. For me it was a deep dive into the unknown.

My exchange from Budget Estimates earlier this Spring with Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General, Hon. Mike Farnworth, is brisk. We have engaged on these issues many times in recent years. I’ve asked him about the policing of Indigenous people, civil disobedience, and the formation of the RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group.

I’ve raised my concern about institutionalized racism, homophobia, and transphobia, and a toxic culture that has repeatedly been described to me as “the old-boys club” in some law enforcement organizations. I’ve pressed Minister Farnworth on transparency, accountability, and consistent, robust, independent, civilian-led oversight of all our policing services to improve public confidence.

I’m a strong supporter of the all-Party committee process. I believe it is the best way to govern inclusively. They produce consensus recommendations that are resilient because all the political parties are part of developing them. The Members on the committee learn together, grow together, and establish a common ground to build on.

For all the reasons above, one of the recommendations we included was for the Minister to use the all-Party committee to continue working with him and his Ministry as a resource when implementing the recommendations on reforming the Police Act.

Instead of looking outward and embracing a collaborative approach, Minister Farnworth and the BC NDP government have turned inward. Isolating themselves, they have chosen to carry the burden on their own.

It is foolish and does not serve British Columbians well. As the committee recognized, reforming public safety, and the culture of public safety organizations in British Columbia, will take a decade or more. It’s a project that will span multiple election cycles, and maybe even multiple governing political parties. Reforming policing will be an expensive and challenging endeavour, and as we have all witnessed in Surrey, intensely political. Why unnecessarily welcome that threat?

Minister Farnworth’s response to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirited People has been tepid and uninspiring to say the least. The horror continues on his watch, the list continues to grow. The tragic deaths of Chelsea Poorman and Carsyn Mackenzie Seaweed are two more examples of policing services in British Columbia proclaiming they know the outcome of an investigation, long before the investigation is over. This needs to stop!

Finally, this exchange with Minister Farnworth ends with a few questions on the shocking lack of oversight of the BC Conservation Service. Despite being a law enforcement agency, carrying high-powered weapons, they have no independent, civilian-led oversight. Minister Farnworth knows this is a problem, and I will continue drag this issue into the public light until it is fixed. He points to changes coming this Fall, I am going to hold him to it.


A. Olsen:
Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.

Following up on the question around mental health and corrections, just a pretty high-level question for the minister with respect to what the philosophy is in our correctional system.

Hon. M. Farnworth:
I would sum it up in two phrases. Protect communities, and reduce reoffending.

A. Olsen:
Is it the idea of our corrections system to rehabilitate those that are in it and to reduce the recidivism rates?

Hon. M. Farnworth:
Yes, it is.

A. Olsen:
From that perspective…. I’m just wondering how the minister feels about the use of solitary confinement in our corrections system.

Hon. M. Farnworth:
I appreciate the question from the member.

First, we don’t use the term “solitary confinement” anymore. We do have separate confinement. It is used for two particular circumstances: one, if the individual is a danger to themselves, and two, they’re a danger to others. If they are in that, it is for the absolute minimum amount of time.

A. Olsen:
Are they by themselves?

Hon. M. Farnworth:
Not exclusively. The majority are, but sometimes they will be with another person.

A. Olsen:
Can the minister provide the reason why we’ve changed how we refer to this technique, I guess, or this tool that is used in our corrections system, from solitary confinement to separate confinement? Is it because there are occurrences where the technique or the tactic is used, and there are times where people are together?

Hon. M. Farnworth:
We have not used that term for quite a long time now. I would say one of the reasons is that it is often viewed in the context of the public as a form of punishment. The policies we have in place are that separate confinement is not used for punishment, but rather, as I said, for those who may be a risk to themselves or a risk to others.

You asked me if — and I said sometimes there are — there may be two people in separate confinement. That may sound a little counterintuitive in terms of risk to themselves, and it varies from situation to situation, but it is sometimes a situation where, for someone who is suicidal, actually having another person there is actually beneficial. So there are circumstances that are taken into account as to when it is used.

A. Olsen:
Perhaps this might be worthwhile for us to have a separate conversation about this in further detail. I think there is use in me raising it here on the record as well, because the stories that I’ve heard are of separate confinement being used as inmate punishment. Also, as management. I think the minister just talked about this. Also have had conversations with respect to the impact around increased depression, deteriorated cognitive skills, hallucinations…. I think we see studies that show that the impact….

This was why I was asking what the point of the corrections system was –– because it seemed like this practice works against the goal of rehabilitating or reducing recidivism. That’s why, I think, I’ve raised this issue in other parts of this Legislature and wanted to just raise it here as well. So I think it’s probably better for a conversation further down the road, somewhere else.

I do want to move to policing. I was part of the special committee to review the Police Act. We did 15 months of work as a committee, and on April 28 of last year we tabled our final report. There were 11 recommendations in that report, covering a new community safety and policing act, civilian-led accountability and oversight, better training and support to transform policing culture, a new provincial police service, equitable funding, equitable police distribution, Indigenous involvement, improved local and regional accountability, and better governance mechanisms.

We also recommended that the minister depoliticize this process of police reform in our province by creating an all-party committee that was able to leverage the consensus that that special committee, which the minister stood up, had been able to build during that 15-month process. We noted that transforming policing in this province is a multi-year, multi-parliament, maybe a multi-government process. It could actually be multiple governing relationships, like we had in the confidence and supply agreement, as an example. So there are all sorts of different outcomes that could happen over the time.

Why did the minister choose to ignore the recommendation and not create an all-party committee to work with the Ministry of Public Safety to implement the recommendations and to oversee policing reform in our province?

Hon. M. Farnworth:
I thank the member for the question. I just want to, first of all, start by saying I have not ruled out, and government has not ruled out, the creation of an all-party committee. We have a new ADM who’s busy going through, working within my ministry on those recommendations. As you rightly said, this is a multi-parliament, -government effort.

We are looking, as I said, at a first phase of amendments in the Police Act in the fall, but it’s a staged process. We are still actively working on the recommendations, actively working on what’s involved. And we have not ruled out an all-party committee.

A. Olsen:
Twelve months have passed since that. The official opposition has a new leader, perhaps a different culture. We have the issue that the minister just addressed in Surrey. We have the issues in the capital regional district here. We’ve got multiple detachments in the RCMP suffering from staffing shortages. There’s no end of work that could benefit from work by all three political parties, all three caucuses in here that could have assisted, and would have assisted, I would suspect, the minister and the ministry in decision-making around the Surrey policing situation, as an example.

The fact is…. I respect the fact the minister has left the door open to the fact that a committee could still be struck, but doesn’t the minister see, in the 12 months between the tabling of the report and now, a lost opportunity to maintain the momentum that was generated over the 15 months of work that we did?

I can say to the minister, as a member that was working on that committee, I really feel that for the work that we did, the momentum has been lost. We see it showing up in question period. We see the politics of it showing up in quotes and responses, whereas when we were working together on this, there were consensus-building opportunities that are now lost. Does the minister not see the 12 months as lost opportunity?

Hon. M. Farnworth:
I understand where the member is coming from. I appreciate that he wants to ensure that momentum is not dropped and that the work of the committee is not ignored. I can absolutely tell him that the work of the committee is absolutely not being ignored. It is very fundamental in the work that’s taken place within my ministry in terms of reforming the Police Act.

I look forward to when that comes forward — the member seeing his work reflected in the changes. But I just want to let the member know about the work that has taken place to date in terms of within the ministry and that engagement to ensure that the momentum from the committee’s report is actively ongoing. It is going to be a key component of what we’re able to bring forth.

The ministry has engaged so far with 12 First Nations; modern treaty nations; friendship centres in Cariboo, Nawican, and Kermode; Friendship House Association of Prince Rupert; the Indigenous leadership organizations; the B.C. First Nations Justice Council; the First Nations Leadership Council; the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner; the independent investigations office; the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and their modernization subcommittee; the B.C. Police Association; the police boards; police board chairs; chief of the Organized Crime Agency board; Transit Police; the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner; the UBCM; my advisory council on multiculturalism; and police victim services.

We’ve been engaged with all of those, in part to be able to do the work that’s necessary to move this forward. Does it take a long time? Yeah, it does. I know this. The member knows this, and I know it. Government does not necessarily move at the fastest pace. But it does move. I just want the member to know that the work is taking place. The work of the committee is very much part and parcel of why that work is taking place.

A. Olsen:
Why did the minister initially establish an all-party committee to review and make recommendations to reform the Police Act?

Hon. M. Farnworth:
I appreciate the question. I think it’s fair to say that at the time the committee was struck, there was, I think, a significant amount of public concern about policing, not just here in British Columbia but, in fact, in many parts of the country. I think that there is a sense that there need to be changes in a number of areas. Some of the more, you know, mental health…. I think that the issue around mental health and policing, which has been an issue, really kind of, I think, came to the surface, as did issues around governance in policing and how it relates to police boards, for example. I think reports that we have seen at the national level around the RCMP were also, you know, part and parcel. So all of those things.

I think the government’s view was: you know what? The all-party committee is a way to bring forward and to hear what people have to say and to bring forward ideas and recommendations, which they did. And I think that’s the genesis, if you like, of the committee in the first place. And as I’ve said, I think the work the committee did was excellent work and is very much foundational in terms of the work that’s been underway within my ministry and that first phase being expected in the fall.

Part of the approach is to make sure that we are doing those consultations with people who…. Let me rephrase it. It’s important that the development of it, the consultation that’s taking place, is reflective of the people who made presentations and upon whom policing impacts. That’s one of the reasons, for example, the co-development has been taking place with First Nations.

A. Olsen:
For the past several months, while we’ve been in here, we have heard a persistent approach by the official opposition around public safety, around policing and around prolific offenders brought into probably the least useful part of the business that happens in this place — question period. The most useful place where the business happens actually happens is in this room that we’re in today, where we worked for those 15 months, collaboratively, all three parties building consensus.

I guess where I’m lost in this is that the minister saw and has spoken very clearly about the effectiveness, the efficacy of that committee, then chooses to abandon the very process right after we had tabled a consensus report, decided to become very insular about it, take it within the ministry to do the work rather than to do what the recommendation was, which was to strike that committee, an oversight committee, that could help whatever government is in place to be able to deliver on the recommendations in collaboration with the minister.

Ultimately, it’s still the minister’s responsibility, but what was lost in that was the collaborative approach, the consensus-building approach that has now been troubling this same minister over the last number of months because immediately, the issue became repoliticized again.

We had a situation that depoliticized the issue. All of us learned from that process. That was then abandoned. The issue was re-politicized, and I think it came and showed itself in this most recent decision that was needed to be made around Surrey. Rather than making it a decision of the Legislature, it became a decision of the minister.

I think that, in the end, what happened was we weakened that process. We have lost 12 months of good work because the decision was to be insular about it.

Does the minister support the creation of a provincial police service that’s not the RCMP?

Hon. M. Farnworth:
I’ll address the two issues.

In terms of the provincial police service…. That’s one of the recommendations in the report. It is an initiative that is very complex, and that’s why I have asked my staff to look into what would be involved in that. The report itself acknowledges that the recommendations would take many, many parliaments. In that recommendation…. I think that’s the one that would take that. Not least of which, there’s a contract in place till 2032.

The reality is that there would be a lot of work to understand the implications of that. Also, what would be the various options? My staff will be working on that to provide information to myself as minister.

In terms of Surrey…. I understand what the member is saying. The reality is…. I am guided by the legislation. I’m guided by the act itself, which says I have to make that determination based on the advice I get from the director of police services. It’s not a political decision. It’s based on the issue of public safety and the advice that I get from my director of police services and the analysis that they’re required to do in terms of a transition plan.

There’s a very specific legislative process that I have to follow. I can’t delegate that decision to anybody else.

As I said, the issue of a provincial police force…. That’s a complex issue which my staff would have to do a significant amount of work on.

A. Olsen:
Yeah. This is exactly the reason why I’ve been asking about the all-party committee.

We’ve lost 12 months. We’ve actually…. The problem that I feel is the biggest challenge we now face, based on the fact…. Instead of continuing to engage all of the political parties in this Legislative Assembly on a burden that we all carry, public safety…. It’s the burden that the minister carries specifically, as a minister of the government, but it’s a burden that all of us should feel we carry some part of.

The project always was going to be a decade-long project. We saw it in New Zealand. It’s a decade-long project to transform policing, to transform culture, to make sure the training is in place, to make sure the regional and local governance are in place, to make sure that the community’s Indigenous nations are involved. That was always going to be a decade-long project.

Precisely the reason why we recommended the all-party committee was to ensure that we didn’t lose the consensus that was established in that report. I’ve been in this place every single day that it has been open since then. I feel zero confidence that that consensus still exists. I feel the 15 months of work that we did to build that consensus and to build trust across party lines likely doesn’t exist anymore. That’s what was sacrificed when the minister decided to bring it entirely in-house and to carry the burden alone.

What I fear is…. The work that we did on paper is still good work. You can look at the recommendations. But the political landscape in this place, the political landscape in communities like Surrey, which has the largest detachment…. That’s the reason why the question, “How does the minister feel about a provincial police service?” is an important question. The largest RCMP detachment, as the minister said in question period the other day, is in Surrey. It is political chaos there.

I understand that the minister has to follow the act, but also the government has to be tracking the political nightmare that’s being created in local government elections and the recognition that there are multiple layers of politics at the local level and at the provincial level.

That’s why all of these questions are applicable. The reality is that if we continued a committee that had all of us sitting around the table, we would be forced into a position to work together in a way that has now been lost. That’s how all of these questions that I’m asking actually fit together, because the work…. If an all-party committee is struck now, we start from the beginning again.

The minister’s right. The RCMP contract ends in 2032. That’s less than ten years from now. The decade window that I’m giving in these questions is a deliberate one because it might have taken ten years for us to responsibly transition. But we’ve lost a year, and we’ve lost a whole lot of political goodwill that we worked very hard around that table to maintain. We deliberated for hours to get to a position that all the parties could agree on.

The minister could have taken hold of that and continued to make that the culture around the discussion around here instead of what we hear in question period, day in and day out, which is just yelling back and forth about policing and public safety, not making our communities more safe. In fact, making the entire discussion more toxic. That’s what I fear about this situation.

Police accountability is the thing that the public is most concerned about. We invited Vancouver police chief Adam Palmer to the committee twice to get their perspective on systemic racism. Twice, that police chief couldn’t acknowledge systemic racism. I believe it was twice if my memory serves me correctly. Then, in the media, Chief Palmer brazenly states he’s not accountable to the city of Vancouver, not accountable to the province, not accountable to the federal government. The minister said in question period that he is accountable. Accountable to whom?

Hon. M. Farnworth:
I appreciate the comments from the member. I want to acknowledge that, look, I totally understand where he’s coming from, but I also want to make it clear that the work of the committee is foundational in the work that’s been ongoing in the last 12 months. I do believe…. And as I said, we have not made a decision on not constituting an all-party committee, but there’s…. I think that the work is something that…. All members of the House, I think, support the work that took place.

I mean, it gets raised in question period, and it is political, but at the same time, it is still around the fundamental issues that were raised at the committee, whether it is often on mental health, about policing, about the root causes of crime, about governance, all of those things.

There is work underway dealing with that, and as I said, we have not said no to the all-party committee.

I want to address the issue of accountability that the member raises. A police chief, a police organization, is absolutely accountable to the community it represents. The police chief is accountable to the police board, the police are accountable to the public, and to say otherwise is simply not correct.

A. Olsen:
I agree entirely. Unfortunately, in the quote, all there was, was who that police chief wasn’t accountable to. There wasn’t the context of exactly who that individual is accountable to.

I agree that police chiefs are entirely accountable to their police board and, through their police board, to all of those other individuals, organizations and community groups that the minister was talking about, but as the story was told, it was just: “I’m not accountable to the city of Vancouver.” Technically, that’s not true. Technically, that individual is entirely accountable to the city of Vancouver — maybe not to the mayor and council, but to the police board, the city and the citizens in the city.

The reality is that we’ve got a situation where a chief of one of the largest police services in the province — one of the most, I think, well-known in the public services — is out saying, in public, who they are not accountable to, not who they are accountable to. I think that it’s very troubling. The reason I’m raising this is because it paints a picture for the public about the direction that their police services are going — and without a very strong response from everybody.

That’s the reason why I wanted to raise it here. I think it gives an opportunity for the minister again to be very clear to the public on who it is that the chiefs of police…. We give them an incredible amount of power, and we need to be consistently reminding that there are checks and balances on that power. That was one of the fundamental pieces of the Police Act: an independent, civilian-led transparency and accountability body that brings together all the different bodies.

We’ve got three of them right now. We’ve got the IIO, we’ve got the Police Complaint Commissioner, and we’ve got the civilian group that’s currently reviewing the community-industry response group, the RCMP group out of Ottawa. In this province, we’ve got this fragmented police accountability system. We have our ability to address two of them. We have no ability, or very limited ability, to address the one that goes all the way to Ottawa.

Accountability, again, just to point it out, is the concern we consistently heard from the public that they’re concerned about. We also heard that there’s another policing body, or another enforcement body, in this province that has no direct accountability. The Police Complaint Commissioner is not involved. Perhaps the IIO might get involved if there was a death involved. This is the conservation service.

There’s zero independent oversight of the conservation service in this province. I’ve asked a number of questions in question period to the minister about policing and accountability. The minister consistently responds about the arm’s-length relationship between politicians and law enforcement, but that doesn’t even exist in the conservation service. The conservation service, as I’ve been able to understand it, is basically a provincial army. It’s directly responsible to the Minister of Environment. No independent accountability or oversight.

To their credit, the former COS chief stated clearly in our consultations that they should have oversight. It’s a recommendation in the Police Act report, one that has not been brought in. The union, on the other hand, said: “Absolutely not.” They don’t want to have anything to do with independent oversight. They want to treat every one of these incidents as if it were a human resources process, a union disciplinary process or an administrative process. They have no authority or expertise in the law enforcement expertise behind it.

I’ve had meetings with former COS members over the last number of months. They paint a terrible picture of the culture in that organization. Again, no oversight, Minister — none. I’m really concerned that we have a well-armed enforcement agency with little or no oversight. Internal complaints are handled internally. Does the minister feel this is acceptable?

Hon. M. Farnworth:
I appreciate the question from the member, and I can tell him that I am aware that there is a view that there needs to be more oversight in terms of the conservation service that he’s been talking about.

I can also tell him that there is a regulation dealing with the conservation service. They are special police provincial constables, and there is a disciplinary regulation that is in place that people can make a complaint to. It would be to the Director of Police Services. That’s what is in place now, but I am aware of the issue that the member has raised.

A. Olsen:
So one of the hooks that the hat gets hung on is that there is an arm’s-length relationship between the political body and police services or enforcement bodies. No such arm’s-length relationships exist. I think the people of B.C. would be shocked to find out that actually this B.C. conservation service could be directed by the government. It does not have the same arm’s-length relationship as other policing services in the province.

These are individuals that carry and work with high-powered rifles. They can bring those high-powered rifles home, which, as I understand, is unique. If you were in the RCMP, for example, that wouldn’t happen. Now the argument that’s been given is that these individuals work in rural British Columbia, and there’s not always an opportunity to lock them up like the RCMP might be required to. So the high-powered rifles go home at the end of the day.

In training, these individuals are basically asked to act like police officers, but they’re not police officers. They are special constables, but they are the conservation service. At times they’re asked to actually work alongside the RCMP because we have a scenario in our province where the RCMP are understaffed. So sometimes they work in concert with the RCMP, from what I understand.

When I’ve been receiving information about a culture of homophobia, transphobia, bullying, racism…. I’ve been trying to navigate through the provincial government, a myriad of the Ombudsperson, the public service agency. I am finding it absolutely impossible to find that accountability that the minister says exists. My experience over the last number of months in trying to deal with this, and trying to bring this to attention, is that accountability does not exist.

I cannot bring this, as I understand it, to the police complaints commissioner and have them look into it. I met with the Ombudsperson. I was encouraged to take it to the public service agency. The public service agency got me in front of the new chief. That was the process. The process was I was to bring these very sensitive issues directly to the person who oversees internal accountability of these internal issues.

There’s no arm’s-length, separated process that is safe for people to do this. We raised this in our reforming the Police Act report one year ago. Nothing has changed. This government has sat on this, knowing the problem. As the minister said, he’s aware of the problem.

When will this conservation service, a much-needed service in our province, have the same level of accountability as other enforcement agencies in this province? When will we be able to see that it has an arm’s-length relationship from the politicians? Because currently it does not.

Hon. M. Farnworth:
I appreciate the question and the commentary from the member, and I know that you know it was recommendation 9.

I can tell you that on that issue of accountability in governance, there is a considerable amount of work underway in the ministry on these issues that the member is raising, including this last one. I said I’m aware them. We’re aware of the problem.

I also would make the point that the conservation service lies within the Ministry of Environment. It doesn’t lie within this ministry, but in terms of the recommendations out of the SCORPA, that work has been underway. It’s not a question of sitting on something and ignoring something, but rather, it’s about policy work that needs to be done on this recommendation and all the other recommendations that are in there.

I can tell you that, as I said, we’re aware of it. There is work underway in terms of government’s accountability, and I think all of us want to make sure that when there are agencies who are charged with enforcement, that there are proper accountability measures in place that the public has confidence in.

A. Olsen:
I’m well aware of where this conservation service lies. In fact, I’ve raised this with the Minister of Environment, but they are special constables. While their service is within the Ministry of Environment, we grant them similar powers to the powers that we grant to a municipal police service and RCMP police service. Yet we have absolutely no accountability mechanisms to ensure that when stuff goes bad the public can be certain that those members are going to be held accountable.

The union was clear. The union wanted to have no further powers granted to anybody. Credit the former chief of the conservation service who said, absolutely, bring it on. In fact, it’ll help with the credibility of this service. For one year, since we tabled those recommendations, there have not been more accountability measures put in place for the conservation service.

I have been dealing with individuals who have been bringing their stories to me because there is no safe place for them to bring them to. Everywhere they’ve gone, it has been a threat for them. These are vulnerable individuals. This government is providing them no safety to be able to have the ability to be a constructive part of changing the culture of that organization, so they come to me to do it. I’m not the place for that to happen.

I know the minister knows who they are. I know the minister knows what the recommendation is. What I’m worried about is that every day that passes, the people who we task with that work are vulnerable. They have no place to raise their complaints to that is not going to be investigated by their own superiors, people who are often the ones that might be treating them in those awful ways.

There is no confidence. There should be zero confidence from the public that if an incident happens, there is a place for that incident to be properly handled in an independent — not even civilian-led, just an independent — way.

I hear that there’s a lot of work being done. Tomorrow is one day later that vulnerable people are left vulnerable. When is the valuable work that’s being done going to come to fruition, and this provincial army, basically, will be brought in to a level of accountability and transparency that the public can be confident about and where the members can achieve the level of safety that they should already have been granted a year ago when we raised this issue?

Hon. M. Farnworth:
Again, I thank the member for the question. I want to make a number of points in response to his commentary.

First, in terms of accountability. Because they’re special police constables, if there is an incident…. The member has used the term “army” a couple of times and “carbines” a couple of times. If there was an incident involving a weapon, an injury or someone is shot, the IIO has jurisdiction over that, and that is oversight.

The member raises issues around culture — toxicity of culture, homophobia, transphobia, all of those things. PSAC is the place to deal with that. PSAC is the place to deal with those things.

At the same time, the member wants to see additional accountability measures. As I’ve said, there is work underway within my ministry around that. I’ve said that in terms of governance and accountability, we are going to see that first phase, in terms of amendments, in place in the fall. But the work has to take place. The work has to be done.

It’s not a question of, as I said in response to the member’s previous question on this, it just not taking place. The reality is it that is taking place and has been taking place under the last 12 months.


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