This is the fourth part in a special Star series looking at Canada’s national police force and what some say are the existential challenges it is facing.
VANCOUVER—Standing at a podium during a city council meeting, Assistant Commissioner Brian Edwards, the man in charge of the Surrey, B.C. RCMP, is a Mountie who’s hoping to keep his detachment.
He tells council he wants to make it clear that public safety and officers making it home after their shifts are his top priorities.
But when it comes to policing, the top priorities of Surrey’s council and its residents are more complex.
The city has been entrenched in nasty political strife for more than four years after a previous council proceed on an election promise to oust the RCMP, after accusations the force wasn’t properly policing this massive city within Metro Vancouver. True to its word, council started putting together a local police force instead.
Now, the new council, elected in October, says it aims to keep the Mounties — an about-face that’s set the stage for this late November meeting and Edwards’ first time addressing council after several fractious years that have seen angry divisions among residents, political upheaval that included criminal charges and lobbying efforts on both sides of the divide.
“I will not allow others to criticize the RCMP model or RCMP officers,” Edwards said during his presentation, which was meant to make a case for keeping the force in Surrey. “Policing is integrated in this country and we all respect one another.”
Tensions are high around policing in this city, the 12th largest in Canada.
Surrey is a sprawling, multicultural landscape of numbered streets, greenery and strip malls forming a large chunk of Metro Vancouver. Hidden among these buildings and long, straight streets and avenues are samplings of cultures from around the world, including a tantalizing food scene.
But it also suffers from gang violence and street crime, which became a major election issue in 2018, with many blaming lacklustre work and understaffing from the RCMP (which has policed the city since 1951), for at least part of the problem.
So in 2018, the Safe Surrey Coalition and Doug McCallum won city hall, having promised to replace the Mounties with a municipal force. What ensued was a toxic, divisive community civil war.
Four years later, Brenda Locke toppled McCallum to become the city’s new mayor. The new Surrey Police Service (SPS) is already on the streets and by next week will have 335 officers and 60 civilians working for it — but Locke has set about undoing its creation and restoring the RCMP.
The result of the turmoil — in a city that currently has two, commingling police forces — is far from assured. The province must approve any plan to go back to the Mounties, and a decision has not been announced.
The stakes are high for the RCMP. As the national force goes through one of its most turbulent eras, Surrey represents the largest prize it could lose — the city boasts the largest Mountie detachment in the country and had been a rare city with more than 300,000 people without its own police force.
If the RCMP loses Surrey, experts say, a chain reaction felt by detachments nationwide is possible. Alberta is currently mulling going to a provincial force; a legislative committee in B.C. recommended starting a provincial force last year; and even some in Saskatchewan are suggesting a provincial force.
“It’s a high stakes game politically, it’s a high stakes game for the RCMP,” said Curtis Griffiths, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University.
But the saga in Surrey has also shown the potential difficulties in transitioning away from an established national force to a locally overseen one.
Those supporting the municipal force have not been respectful, Edwards, the assistant commissioner, charged during his recent presentation at city hall. He accused the pro-municipal-police side of spreading misinformation and unfairly criticizing the RCMP’s performance.
Edwards said he’s respected the transition, started in 2021, by being “measured” in his comments about it.
Others don’t see it that way.
Surrey City Coun. Doug Elford, who was also on the previous council that began the move away from the RCMP, said Edwards’ speech felt like a “rah rah” effort without considering facts from the city’s new SPS. He also expressed concerns over Edwards and “the way he looked at” the councillors opposed to keeping the RCMP during his presentation.
“I felt that it was an attempt at intimidation towards the councillors that particularly were opposed to the RCMP,” he said. “That’s just their old-school way of doing business.”
He said the RCMP has “failed” in policing some of the grittier areas of the city and it’s those areas that support the SPS.
Elford said the force is desperate to hang onto Surrey, lest “the dominoes begin to fall” and other municipalities begin to move toward their own forces.
Brenda Locke disagrees. She promised on the night she was elected to keep the RCMP in the city, and said the force is part of their community.
That isn’t the main reason why Locke wants to stick with the RCMP, though. She said her rationale is the transition has been bungled from the beginning. For starters, she said, it was supposed to be already in full operation as the city’s front-line service last year.
“It has failed on all the benchmarks and there were a number of phases, they haven’t even left phase one,” Locke said, “and they’re not going to get to phase two.”
She said the city still doesn’t have a standard memorandum of understanding with the province for how the SPS will police the city, and as mayor she doesn’t intend to sign one.
However, current estimates place the cost of stopping the transition at more than $200 million, according to the Surrey Police Board.
Those who oppose keeping the RCMP say the national force wasn’t built to police a city the size of Surrey and wasn’t properly resourcing the detachment. McCallum, the mayor who made the switch, argued too many RCMP decisions are made in Ottawa, rather than locally, a common accusation Edwards rejected in his presentation to council.
For residents such as Dean Barbour of the local Fleetwood Business Improvement Association, much of the concern comes down to costs for his members.
“When you talk to the businesses, their concern really comes down to the affordability,” Barbour said. “If we’re going to go down this pathway of our own police force, are some of these costs going to continue to get downloaded year after year onto the businesses?”
While he knows others may see things differently, he said his association’s stance is that policing doesn’t change based on what patch officers are wearing.
Griffiths, meanwhile, said one of the issues the RCMP has also come up against is the lack of community policing. Cities in Metro Vancouver are extremely diverse and often the Mounties’ style of national recruitment and assignment leaves gaps in officers’ cultural and language skills. He said the SPS has had a lot of success recruiting those from South Asian backgrounds, which make up more than 30 per cent of Surrey.
“You’ll never be able in an RCMP police municipality to recruit for diversity, because the RCMP recruits nationally,” he said. “It suits the interests of the RCMP, not the community.”
Campaigning on the frustrations, on election day 2018 the Safe Surrey Coalition won control of council and began making the transition in 2021 to the SPS. But the switch continued to divide the community.
Those in the parts of Surrey more prone to crime feel they were being left behind, Elford said, while the areas with less crime tended to be more well-to-do and supported the RCMP. The dispute hung heavy in municipal politics.
It even led to mischief charges against McCallum when he was mayor regarding an incident in September 2021, when he said a supporter of the RCMP ran over his foot with her car in a grocery store parking lot. RCMP didn’t buy the story and charged McCallum, alleging he fabricated the story of his foot being run over, with public mischief.
During the trial, his lawyer argued the RCMP was hardly an independent agency in charging the mayor, the man who was running them out of town. McCallum was cleared six weeks ago, with the judge saying he believed his version of events.
A month after the parking lot incident, the bitter division even saw the president of the union representing RCMP officers likening Surrey’s government to an authoritarian regime, after it changed a bylaw to restrict political signs on public property. The union alleged that the move was meant to silence support for the Mounties; Rob Farrer, board director of the National Police Federation (NPF), said the move was “undemocratic.”
The transition continued.
Fast forward to Oct. 15, 2022 and McCallum is ousted from office, with some supporters alleging the court case hurt his re-election bid. Locke makes her pledge to stop the transition and stay with the RCMP.
In mid-November, her council backed it up with a narrowly won vote. Now, the province has the final decision and is expected to declare, later this month, whether Surrey can reverse course and keep the Mounties.
Elford, who voted against stopping the transition, said the RCMP cannot recruit enough members to properly police the city. It doesn’t make sense to return to them, he said.
He alleged the effort to push against the transition is largely led by the NPF. Elections BC information shows the federation did spend more than $150,000 in 2021 petitioning for a referendum on the city’s policing.
“The union was probably going to lose about 800 members,” Elford said. “And that’s a fair amount of dues.”
The NPF’s media relations manager, Fabrice de Dongo, told the Star the union wasn’t prepared to talk about allegations it is behind the push to keep the RCMP, saying the federation will talk in the future.
Despite November’s council vote, the Surrey Police Service said it is continuing the transition.
Shifting to a municipal force has been a large project, including the creation of a Surrey Police Board. The board’s executive director, Melissa Granum, said the gradual change is a significant undertaking.
“Nothing like this has ever been done before in terms of a takeover of a contract policing model to a municipal independent model, in particular with a city the size of Surrey,” Granum said.
The number of officers working for the local force is expected to continue growing to replace the 1,000-member presence the RCMP brought.
Meanwhile, the SPS is working with the province to establish a framework defining what its jurisdiction will be, once the Surrey force meets the benchmarks sets by B.C.’s provincial policing standards.
Granum expects to exceed those standards. Officers have been coming from other local departments in Metro Vancouver and from around the country, she said. Despite police departments around Canada reporting trouble finding recruits, she said the SPS has had a “unique” experience.
“We’ve received thousands of applications,” said Granum. “We have over 2,500 applications between experienced police officers and new recruits.”
She said she believes it’s because applicants want to be part of a “forward thinking” policing initiative.
RCMP officers in Surrey can transfer elsewhere within the force, Granum said, but those who have joined the SPS have nowhere to go. If their force is shut down, it could cost the city millions in severance.
The forces are working together during the transition, but relations between them have been far from smooth.
After Locke pledged to keep the RCMP, an overwhelming 94 per cent of the SPS members represented by the Surrey Police Union signed their own pledge, vowing not to join the Mounties. The union alleged the RCMP is toxic.
The situation hasn’t hit the level of the 1883 Rat Portage War, when a dispute over the Ontario and Manitoba border led to police from both jurisdictions in Rat Portage (now Kenora) arresting each other, but an air of uncertainty has hung over the transition.
In late November, the Surrey Police Union took aim at the RCMP via Global News, criticizing the Mounties for short-staffing in the city and alleging that 911 calls were going unanswered.
The Mounties rejected the allegations and said the union was putting out “inaccurate” information.
Adam Olsen, a provincial Green Party MLA and member of the special police reform committee that delivered a report in 2022 recommending B.C. move on from the RCMP to a provincial force, said he was in disbelief when he saw the two services openly taking jabs at each other.
“This is really kind of embarrassing,” Olsen said.
He blamed the provincial government for being too hands-off when it comes to policing in the province and in the transition of Surrey’s policing. His committee’s recommendation for a provincial force echoed the concerns of those who support the municipal force for Surrey.
“We felt that a provincial police service is more responsive and more responsible to the provincial government,” Olsen said. “While there is a relationship between the provincial RCMP leadership and the provincial government here, the chain of command actually leaves this province and goes all the way to Ottawa.”
He pointed out during his time as a city councillor in Saanich, a community on Vancouver Island, if he had questions about policing, he could simply call the local chief and hear everything straight from the top immediately.
For Locke, it’s all more nuanced than most people realize. She maintains that had the 2018 council laid out a plan and done better due diligence, the matter would be put to rest.
“This is a way, way more complicated situation” that what’s reflected in “the clips on the news and the 10-second sound bites,” she said.
Elford said he hopes B.C.’s Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth “sees through” the arguments of the new council, considers the advice of the final report from Olsen’s committee, and decides the transition to the SPS must continue.
Otherwise, he said, if the next council wants a municipal force, the saga could continue and residents in Surrey remain caught in the middle.
“Are we going to be yo-yoing back and forth and debating this forever?” he said. “I think he needs to put this to bed and say enough is enough.”