Wednesday, May 22, 2024
May 22, 2024

MLA column: Conservation officer service needs oversight

British Columbians would be shocked to learn that the B.C. Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS), a small, heavily armed service with no independent oversight, can be directly controlled by the B.C. NDP government through the minister of environment. 

The Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act report submitted to the legislature last year recommended that Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth fix this glaring lack of independent oversight and he has ignored that recommendation.

The BCCOS website describes conservation officers as “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 Statues, and protect the public and preserve the peace.” 

Conservation officers dress like police, drive police-like cars, use police-like tactics, carry police-like assault rifles and have all the powers of police under section 9 of the Police Act, but are not subject to police-like independent oversight and have no constabulary independence. They are directly responsible to the environment minister. It’s his own police force. 

When I asked Minister Farnworth about this issue in budget estimates he directed incidents with weapons to the Independent Investigations Office, and issues around toxicity of culture, such as homophobia, transphobia and racism to the Public Service Agency (PSA). 

But section 6 of the Police Act states the Public Service Act does not apply to special provincial constables while exercising a constabulary duty. 

Does Minister Farnworth really believe it’s appropriate for the PSA to act as police complaints commissioner for special constables? When I tried to ask the PSA about this situation, I was inexplicably rerouted back to the BCCOS chief and Ministry of Environment staff. 

Antiquated legislation unleashes the authority of the environment minister to direct a provincial policing agency, the BCCOS, in serious environmental investigations like large-scale corporate mining and forestry non-compliances.  

For the B.C. NDP to admit the BCCOS is a fully functional and unrestricted environmental policing agency limits the powers of the PSA and BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU), and restricts the B.C. NDP’s ability to access information or influence investigations in environmental crime.  

The provincial government would be subject to internal policing reviews of environmental decisions both under provincial offence provisions, and perhaps the Criminal Code of Canada. Beginning to understand why this B.C. NDP might be dragging its heels on oversight of the BCCOS?

Constabulary independence should be enforced as a cardinal principle of our democracy and rule of law, just as Minister Farnworth reminds me. But it’s not how his regime is operating.  

Conservation officers who put their lives on the line every day must know they have a safe place to do their police work on environmental matters. Currently, they do not. 

The Police Act is Minister Farnworth’s responsibility. He is allowing a heavily armed service, with all the powers of police but no independent oversight, to be under the direct control of his colleague, Minister of Environment George Heyman.  

Minister Farnworth has been loitering on the special committee recommendation to require independent oversight of the BCCOS for over a year. Serious crimes need investigation and his inaction is threatening the safety of the public and the people we ask to do this dangerous work. 

A lack of independent oversight of the BCCOS is unacceptable and the B.C. NDP government needs to fix this immediately.

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