Budget Estimates: Public Safety & Solicitor General moving toward oversight of BC Conservation Service

May 14, 2024 | 42-5, Blog, Estimates, Governance, Legislature, Video | 0 comments

In final Budget Estimates exchange of the Spring 2024 session I reconnected with public safety minister and Solicitor General, Hon. Mike Farnworth.

After several years of advocating for independent oversight of the BC Conservation Officer Service I received the clearest answer to date and it appears both the Minister of Environment, Hon George Heyman and Minister Farnworth are on track to regulate oversight. Finally. It is not a perfect solution but much better than what exists now.

In addition, I continued my advocacy of special unit and prosecutor to investigate and prosecute Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2 Spirited people. I asked about independent oversight of the RCMP and their Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG). I also raised the issues we are hearing about with respect to changes to ICBC.

It turned out to be a productive and emotional exchange with Minister Farnworth.

[Transcript]

A. Olsen:

Just a question with respect to the Insurance (Motor Vehicle) Amendment Act. It’s on concerns being brought to us with respect to the changes that were made not working as they were intended.
Despite the promises that the act would improve care for victims of crashes, we’re hearing many stories of the no-fault program leading to worse outcomes, of ICBC adjusters going against recommendations of medical professionals and about issues of cyclists and pedestrians, especially those who might not have an ICBC insurance policy, getting the proper compensation.

ICBC just rebated $395 million in individual rebates. How does the minister square the reality that the promise of the no-fault system that was brought in is not reconciling with the reality that we’re facing on the ground with giving such a large amount of money back, noting the fact that people are not receiving the compensation they deserve?

Hon. M. Farnworth:

I’d have to disagree with the premise of the question. Enhanced care is working. It’s working in terms of people getting the care they need faster, sooner and for longer periods of time than they ever did under the old tort system, where you would often have to wait, sometimes years, for a tort to be heard in a court. The benefits they receive are for a lifetime, if necessary.

I’ll just give an example. If someone was injured, under the old system, in an accident that was their fault, the maximum benefit they would receive was $300,000. If they were in a serious accident that left them as a paraplegic, that’s all they got to last the rest of their life. Now, under the enhanced care system, that care is there for as long as you need. At the same time, 96 percent of what’s taken in or paid by the claimants is paid to the claimants. It wasn’t that way before, when you had the legal fees that were coming out.

In terms of the rebate, ICBC is able to do that because not only are we able to meet the minimum capital test, but because of the solid investment performance, we are then able to put back in the pockets of policyholders that $400 million in terms of rebate, which they have paid into the corporation, that has been generated for the corporation by investment income.

[11:35 a.m.]

So the system is working the way it’s intended. Are there issues that come up with cases? Of course there will be. That’s why we’ve got the fairness officer in place. That’s why there’s the civil resolution process in place for people to be able to access. So all of those things are in place, and the system is working.

Now, as I said yesterday in answer to a question, can it improve? Of course it can. Any system can improve. And ICBC wants to work and make sure that those improvements are taking place by constantly upgrading the skills and training of its employees and looking at changes that are taking place in terms of, you know, how car insurance is put in place, the kinds of care that people need, all of those things. But the system is doing what it’s intended to do, and we think it’s a significant improvement over what was in place before.

A. Olsen:

I don’t have any further questions for ICBC, so I’m going to be switching gears. Thank you to the ICBC staff for hanging around for what amounts to a single question. I appreciate it. Nice to see you.

I do want to ask the minister…. In Bill 17 debate earlier this year and then as followed up in question period, both the Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General and the Minister of Environment indicated their willingness to implement accountability measures for the B.C. conservation officer service. As I understand it, either the minister has to amend the act to include it as a police service, or the minister that’s responsible for and, in fact, the head of the B.C. conservation service as it’s currently structured, needs to come and ask the Minister of Public Safety…. So there were suggestions by both ministers that this project was going to happen.

I’m wondering if the minister can provide a timeline when we can expect that for the public to be able to understand…. I guess maybe I should ask this question first. Has the Minister of the Environment approached the Minister of Public Safety and requested that the B.C. conservation service get the appropriate level of oversight, that the people of B.C. can expect the same level of protection –– actually, that the conservation officers can expect the same level of protection that other officers with unlimited appointments get? Has the Minister of Environment made that request, and if so, what’s the timeline for implementation?

Hon. M. Farnworth:

I appreciate the question from the member. What I can tell the member is that we are currently working with the Ministry of Environment on enhancing the independent oversight of conservation officers. We have policy and legal analysis underway on regulatory options to apply independent oversight. The analysis includes consideration on the scope of the oversight that can be applied to special provincial constables. If a regulatory model is feasible, the ministry would look to introduce those regulations as soon as possible.

As part of phase 2 of the policing and public safety modernization initiative, the ministry is exploring options for a new policing oversight scheme as recommended by the special committee. The analysis includes considering how independent oversight can be applied to officers along the law enforcement continuum, including the conservation officer service. That legislation, as we talked about earlier, is looking at 2027. So it’s a combination of: can we do what you’re wanting to do by regulation? If so, we will try and do that as soon as possible. If we cannot do that, then it would be by phase 2 of the policing legislation.

A. Olsen:

As I understood it, the B.C. conservation service could be added into…. I can’t remember the exact section of it at this point, but so that it could then fall under the regulation that we have, or the body that we have. The Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner does the oversight.

I appreciate the answer, the response. I recognize that this has been an issue that I’ve raised a number of times with both ministries, and I’m glad to hear that there’s progress being made on it. I certainly hope that as soon as possible means as soon as possible –– like, very, very soon –– because currently, right now, there’s a lack of protection. I think the province of British Columbia carries a liability, quite a large liability, the way it’s currently structured.

Just recognizing the space that we have here, I do want to talk about another oversight issue that exists, if I may here, with respect to the C-IRG, the community-industry response group.

[11:40 a.m.]

I have a number of constituents who had interactions, let’s just say, with the C-IRG in at Fairy Creek. They’ve been going through the RCMP process to have their situation reviewed. I’ve been copied in the correspondence — or lack of correspondence. I can just share with the minister that this is one of the most frustrating experiences I think that people can have with police oversight. It is essentially not oversight. It is essentially just the RCMP investigating itself and putting the people who are making a complaint in basically a bureaucratic swamp.

Maybe just a comment from the minister. If he finds the RCMP, and in this case it’s about the C-IRG…. I guess that process is for…. The civilian complaints process is for any complaint against the RCMP. I’m just wondering if the minister feels that this is an adequate process, the way that it is playing out, where basically we’ve got the RCMP investigating itself and citizens who are engaged in that process just basically being spun around. No real information, no real clarity, and we are talking years down the road and still no resolution to the open files that exist.

Hon. M. Farnworth:

I appreciate the question from the member.

The member is correct around the CRCC, the Civilian Review Complaints Commission. It’s federal, it’s not provincial, but I can tell you that they are doing a review of the C-IRG. It’s a review of the unit itself, and it’s a systemic review. That is underway. With respect to misconduct complaints against the RCMP, we don’t as a province have jurisdiction because the RCMP is a federal entity.

[11:45 a.m.]

We don’t, as a province, have jurisdiction because the RCMP is a federal entity. As the member knows, they are overseen by the CRCC. That is one of the challenges on that issue of accountability that member raises that we do have.

But in terms of the C-IRG, as he mentioned a moment ago in his question, there is a systemic review underway at that unit.

A. Olsen:

I appreciate the response. Thank you.

I think it was one of the factors, at least, that led me to weigh my voice in favour of that consensus report that we tabled back in 2022. That was that the current policing structure in the province has two sets of oversight. We have a set of oversight that we control, and we have a set of oversight that somebody else, somewhere else, controls.

So perpetually, we will have responses exactly as the minister just gave. This is that even though we have someone who’s responsible for policing — the minister that’s in front of me — in this province, we have a minister that also, then, can turn and say: “Well, that’s federal. They provide the oversight.”

I have a constituent here who has had an interaction with the police, and I’m not passing any judgment on what happened in that interaction. There was an interaction with the police. There is a process for oversight. The police were involved. The C-IRG was involved based on provincial laws, right?

What we have is just this layering of bureaucracy that essentially allows …. The CRCC basically, in their correspondence back, is taking the position: “Well, we’re working through it.” So we’ve got complaints, legitimate complaints. The contentious issue is the result of provincial policy. Yet, under the current structure that we have, we’ve got two sets of police oversight, independent to some extent, and a complete lack of independence.

How is the minister going to reconcile the fact that we have these two systems in place for police oversight, depending on which police officer, even though they have the same appointments, even though they’re constables? They’re the provincial police service.

How does the minister reconcile having these two completely disparate systems that treat people totally differently? One is independent, and one completely lacks independence.

Hon. M. Farnworth:

I appreciate the question from the member. Yeah, the reality is that we do have two policing agencies, municipal police and the RCMP. One has a federal review process, and the other is provincial.

I fully understand what the member is saying. What I can tell you is…. This was obviously a concern raised by the all-party committee. The policing and public safety modernization initiative is looking at what options, related to the expansion of the mandates of both the IIO and the OPCC, we can do, and the ability to bring the RCMP under provincial oversight and therefore improve the process for complainants, affected persons and families.

I think one of the key areas that that means is ensuring that people are treated in a safe and culturally appropriate way. So there’s work underway within the ministry on that phase 2.

[11:50 a.m.]

At the same time, it’s also an issue that we continue to raise with Ottawa at the federal level about the challenges you have when you have the situation that the member described.

A. Olsen:

I’ve got one more section of questions that I’ll ask, but I want to follow up on a statement that the minister made in response to my last question prior to lunch — just around there being two policing agencies. We have one provincial police service. We contract a portion of that out to the RCMP.
The minister suggested that there was perhaps a pathway for bringing the RCMP under provincial oversight. That was in the response. The RCMP commissioner referred to that, I believe, as red under blue, which is something that is unique. Perhaps the federal commissioner of the RCMP suggested recently that that would be very unique.

Is there an example anywhere in the country where the RCMP is a contracted service providing municipal policing services under the oversight of a provincial arms-length civilian oversight?

Hon. M. Farnworth:

No, there’s no example anywhere in the country at this point.

A. Olsen:

One of the challenges with contracting a federal policing service is that they are subject to federal statutes — so the RCMP Act. We have our Police Act here in British Columbia. In order to achieve that — and I’m not sure which one has prominence over the other, and maybe the minister can provide that in his response — what is required legally in order for this to exist — red under blue: where the RCMP is under the direction or the control of a provincial policing body other than through contract?
How does that legally work?

[1:50 p.m.]

Hon. M. Farnworth:

I fully understand the member’s questions. I’m not changing the member’s question, but that terminology of red over blue, blue over red, pertains to another issue which I talked about yesterday, and I don’t want to muddy the waters on that.

In terms of what we’ve been talking about, that discussion around oversight, there’s no clear path at this point in terms of oversight. We have…. As I’ve said in answer to your previous questions, if the RCMP contracted there, that oversight is provided by the CCRC. And then we’ve got the Police Act that deals with municipal police forces, and that’s the reality that we have now.

The work that is underway is just at this point is analyzing. Are there potential paths? Are there ways in which you could deal with that oversight issue? It would most likely require a change of some sort in federal legislation. But it is work that we are underway in analyzing.

A. Olsen:

Thank you, and I appreciate it. I don’t mean to make waters any muddier than they already are. It’s pretty muddy.

I’m going to move on. I would say that I guess I’m hopeful that this work is preceding a decision to adopt a provincial police service that was recommended through the Police Act committee. These are the challenges, and I don’t care to dig any deeper into them. This just, I think, reveals one of the challenges that we face and that we confronted as a committee with determining whether or not it’s better to go with your own provincial police service that you have full accountability and oversight for or to contract a police service that is guided by another act that requires another set of politicians to make decisions on.

I just want to end this with some questions around missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and two-spirit people. As the minister knows, we’ve had several conversations. I really do appreciate the openness that the minister has had with me as a member of the opposition in engaging on this. We’ve talked about the really tragic part of the Canadian story, about who we are, our identity. That is missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. There have been some recommendations made, and I’ve been critical of the amount that we’ve invested in this area. I’ve also been critical of the policing and some of the initial responses, as the minister knows.

I’ve shared with him privately that there’s nothing suspicious here before an investigation has even been undertaken, that we have policing services determining an outcome before even investigating that. There have been some recommendations with respect to maybe creating a special investigator or special prosecutor to deal with cases in which missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and two-spirit people are involved.

Can the minister talk about progress that’s been made with respect to addressing this really unfortunate part of our identity as British Columbians and Canadians?

[1:55 p.m.]

Hon. M. Farnworth:

I appreciate the question. I know we have had those discussions. Let’s just say that there remains a lot of work still to be done.

That said, there has been a lot of work that has already been underway. Obviously, following the 2019 release of the final report of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in our province, we did release A Path Forward: Priorities and Early Strategies, which reflects community-based priorities and strategies to deal with and end the violence.

In 2022, the path forward community fund was established, to meet the need for Indigenous-led capacity-building and safety planning. To date, almost $11 million — well, $10.845 million — has been distributed by the fund, which has supported 51 projects across the province. In 2023, the $10 million in new sexual assault services were implemented, including 70 new programs, 22 of which are Indigenous-focused.

Healing projects were funded through the civil forfeiture office grants program, to a tune of $1.3 million, in a number of areas where, I think, both the member and I have talked about in the past, around police standards. They have been developed regarding training for major case management, including murders and missing-persons cases where foul play is suspected. Standards to promote unbiased policing were also implemented. Police standards on investigations of sexual assaults were approved in 2023 and are taking effect this year.

By the end of the year, all police officers in the province will have taken provincially approved Indigenous cultural safety training, and all front-line officers and supervisors are expected to have taken provincially approved training on trauma-informed practice, as well as training on fair and impartial policing. Those are some of the things that have taken place.

At the same time, we continue to press at the federal level for implementation around recommendations, along with other provinces, that we have been working on. Most recently, it was earlier this year at the FPT meeting in Ottawa.

A. Olsen:

I appreciate the response. Last year at about this time, Carsyn Mackenzie Seaweed’s body was found, just adjacent to some fields where my daughter and her cousins were playing soccer. There was a youth soccer tournament going on. I was at the march in Vancouver, and a relative of hers spoke at that event. It was a pretty moving and forceful speech.

It’s very difficult for me to separate the different treatment that happens: the immediate jump to “not much here; not really a lot of suspicious activity” in this case. I think the entire case of Carsyn is suspicious, yet the policing found it not so. So the last part of the minister’s answer, I think, starts to get to some of these challenges, perhaps some of the way we see things, the way we’re trained to see things, or the way that we have evolved to see things about our identity in this country.

[2:00 p.m.]

The missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and two-spirit people are part of our identity. We all carry it. We can try to run away from it, but we all carry it. It’s part of what it means to be Canadian, to have this response. And I think it’s important that we all feel uncomfortable about it because the Indigenous communities, the families of Carson and the many, many, many others that are represented by this young person –– in this question at least, they carry it. And I make decisions about my kids because of it.

So in all of the responses that the minister just gave, there’s not a lot there for investigations, and so I was asking about the question around…. We just saw the minister stand up, and rightly so…. And I got a chance to talk about it on CBC this week about standing up a special unit to deal with gangs. We have identified a problem with gangs, and we’ve then identified a solution, and then we’ve resourced it.

Many weeks ago, many months ago, it was brought to the minister that we identified a problem. The investigations of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls usually start out pretty poorly. We’ve got a case, I think, where perhaps, you know, other policing enforcement bodies need to come in and clean up messes that were created by one. So we’ve identified that there’s this problem, but yet I still have not seen that response, the same response. Is there going to be a similar response to the Gang Task Force that we created to a known problem that we are all responsible for in this province?

Hon. M. Farnworth:

I appreciate the question from the member. What I can tell the member is, just on this area of work that we have been discussing, of the investment of the $230 million into the provincial business line of RCMP officers. We’re looking at the major crimes unit, and that would result, in the north district, in eight regular members and 13 regular members in the Southeast district. That focus would very much be on being able to solve the kinds of cases the member has been talking about.

We are also currently engaged in consultation with the establishment of a new major crime unit on Vancouver Island. The ministry will be engaging with Indigenous communities around the establishment of community navigator positions embedded within the proposed new unit. These positions will be designed to accommodate priorities identified by Indigenous communities that will help facilitate culturally safe interactions and the exchange of information between the RCMP and families and communities of suspected victims during ongoing investigations.

A. Olsen:

I’ll just ask this question, and then I’ll be finished here. I think it’s important to recognize the narrative around creating a special unit and naming it and the message that it sends to the people that are now going to be investigated for it, the focus. And I respect the fact that there are investments going into major crimes, and, no doubt, the instances that I’m talking about here are definitely, well….

Hon. M. Farnworth:

They’re major crimes.

[2:05 p.m.]

A. Olsen:

They’re major crimes, and they’ll be found to be a major crime if there’s a crime found.
So I’ll leave it at that. I don’t want to also jump to the end situation, although in many of these cases, most of these cases, they end up being major crimes.

However, naming it as a priority of the government by creating a special…. Not only the investigation side of it from the policing, but also then a special prosecutor so that both through the investigation piece and then the prosecution piece, people who are engaged in this behaviour and targeting Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit people, know that there’s a crew that’s coming after them and that that’s what they’re focused on.

Not that they’re focused on processing other major crimes, but if this is the behaviour that you’re engaged in, you’re going to be chased down. That’s not been her experience, right? That’s the reason why I want to frame it in this context that there be that name given to it. Because I think the extent that we’ve seen it exist in our society is worth it.

Hon. M. Farnworth: I know I appreciate the question, and I appreciate the comments and the observations. I have no issue at all. I’m more than willing to take that away. I appreciate the member raising it.

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