A working group established by the B.C. government to engage with First Nations on reforming the Police Act and bring it into line with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act has been put on pause, a human rights tribunal heard last week.
Ardys Baker, who leads a team tasked by B.C.’s Public Safety Ministry to respond to recommendations delivered in 2022 by a special committee on police reform, said she hopes work will soon resume to co-develop new policing legislation with the BC First Nations Justice Council and the First Nations Leadership Council.
But Baker also acknowledged significant hurdles.
“The working group members asked for some pretty big commitments from the province,” Baker testified. “Very recently, actually, they asked to pause the working group until we can come back to them with a commitment of the province to do that work through the [Policing and Public Safety Modernization] Initiative. We’re working to get clarity on that.”
In a statement to The Tyee, the BC First Nations Justice Council confirmed work had paused as it seeks clarification on the group’s mandate, calling it “very intensive work” and adding there had been no clear commitment from the province on the degree of co-development.
“While we’ve been waiting, we have provided feedback over email, as we want to ensure our efforts match with the intentions of the province,” it said.
One of the key commitments requested by the BC First Nations Justice Council and the First Nations Leadership Council is that B.C. follow through on the committee’s recommendation to replace the RCMP with a provincial police force.
Karen Bellehumeur, a lawyer for the First Nations complainants in the inquiry, suggested the request made sense. She described the work to reform policing in the province as a “massive undertaking” that could amount to nothing if, in the end, the RCMP refused to implement the legislated changes.
“I think it’s important for us to understand that the changes [are] still not necessarily applicable to the RCMP unless they agree to it. Is that fair?” Bellehumeur asked.
Baker agreed, but added that that would only be the case if the RCMP remained the provincial police force in B.C. The work to determine whether that will be the case is still underway and is expected to take years, Baker told the tribunal.
Baker testified as part of a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal inquiry examining the RCMP’s investigation more than a decade ago into a “well-known Canadian” who was accused of sexually, physically and emotionally abusing First Nations students at schools where he worked in Burns Lake and Prince George in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The man’s identity is protected by a confidentiality order issued by the CHRT.
While the investigation concluded after 18 months without charges, six members of the Lake Babine Nation allege that they were denied RCMP services because methods used by police were discriminatory and failed to make accommodations for First Nations’ distrust of the RCMP. In 2017, they filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which investigated and referred the complaint for inquiry.
The CHRT’s hearings into Woodgate et al. v. the RCMP began last May and were initially scheduled to last six weeks. However, additional dates were scheduled through the fall and into the new year to hear additional evidence, most if it related to a specific remedy requested by the complainants.
This remedy is detailed in a statement of particulars filed with the tribunal in 2020. The complainants asked that RCMP investigations in Indigenous communities be replaced by investigative teams made up of community members such as an Elder, a language speaker and a spiritual leader, among others. The teams would also include one RCMP officer.
In September, B.C.’s attorney general filed an application to join the inquiry, saying it was best positioned to provide evidence about police oversight and consultation with Indigenous communities with regard to police reform.
While the tribunal declined to give the province full party status, it granted “limited interested person status” in the proceedings, allowing lawyers for the B.C. attorney general to cross-examine witnesses and file written submissions. B.C. has since successfully applied for leave to call its own witnesses.
Baker was the first to testify when the province began calling witnesses last Friday. She spoke about the province’s work on police reform.
In 2020, B.C. appointed the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act to make recommendations on possible police reform, including examining systemic racism within B.C. police agencies and measures needed to bring the Police Act in line with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.
Two years later, the all-party committee came back with 11 recommendations, including greater involvement of Indigenous communities in policing and replacing RCMP with a provincial police force. The report was unanimously accepted in the legislature.
In April 2022, following the report’s release, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the government would review the findings and begin discussions with Indigenous partners, police leadership and oversight bodies, among others.
“As stated in Section 3.11 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act Action Plan, our government has committed to developing and implementing policing reforms to address systemic biases and racism,” Farnworth said.
The province established the Policing and Public Safety Modernization Initiative to lead the province’s response to the recommendations, with a focus on the co-development of new policing legislation, Baker said.
“That’s really stemming from recommendation No. 1 of the special committee’s report, which is to implement a new Police Act to govern policing in the province based on values of de-colonialization, anti-racism, community and accountability,” she said.
The team has already begun seeking interim changes to the Police Act focused on municipal police governance and oversight, Baker said. She described the initial changes as “relatively non-controversial” and said many involve long-standing issues with the Police Act.
But it has concurrently begun the more challenging task of looking at broader legislative reform, something that is expected to take years. It’s hoped that new legislation would be introduced by early 2027, Baker said.
“Ideally, the legislation would be implemented not too long after that,” she added. The shift is likely to take “multiple parliaments.”
“We’re doing everything we can to ensure that success but, like everything, it’s all dependent on future approvals by cabinet and the political support to do that work,” Baker said. “There’s always a risk that priorities could change.”
The provincial team convened its working group with the BC First Nations Justice Council and First Nations Leadership Council in August 2023, she said. Invitations have also been sent to individual First Nations in the province.
But while the working group met consistently throughout the fall, it encountered a tripping point as it began to lay the groundwork for the discussions, Baker told the tribunal.
In addition to removing the RCMP, the BC First Nations Justice Council and First Nations Leadership Council asked B.C. to commit to establishing a new police oversight agency, Baker said. They also asked B.C. to commit to giving jurisdictional authority and funding for First Nations self-administered policing services.
The justice council confirmed this to The Tyee, adding that the same recommendations were made in its written and oral submissions to the special committee, which ultimately agreed.
In November, the tribunal heard from three representatives for the BC First Nations Justice Council, which is mandated to bring B.C.’s justice system in line with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. The panel shared its recent research into how B.C. could implement the Indigenous-led investigation teams requested by the inquiry’s complainants.
BC First Nations Justice Council director Cloy-e-iis Judith Sayers testified, along with lawyers Jonathan Rudin and Rachel Barsky, that the council’s work had determined that a hybrid model, in which independent investigation teams would include one police officer, could provide an initial path forward with the eventual goal being complete Indigenous justice sovereignty over policing.
“We talk about Indigenizing a system, but it’s really hard to Indigenize a system that wasn’t ours to begin with,” Sayers testified at the time.
Baker testified that this news came as a surprise.
“We were under the assumption that we would do the work together with them to co-develop a better model for Indigenous-led policing in the province of B.C.,” she said, adding that establishing an Indigenous-led investigative body through the tribunal would be “premature” given plans to co-develop police reform through the working group.
“It’s actually crucial that we continue to do the work together,” Baker said.
In an email to The Tyee, Sayers clarified that the BC First Nations Justice Council’s work on police reform is specific to the complainants’ requested remedy regarding investigations into abuse experienced by First Nations at residential and other similar schools.
The tribunal heard from B.C.’s third and final witness on Wednesday, marking an end to the lengthy hearings. As testimony wrapped up, the parties set out a timeline for final written submissions by the parties, which will continue into July. The tribunal then has up to six months to issue a decision.
Tribunal chair Colleen Harrington acknowledged the “very extended timeline” compared with other inquiries but added that the hearing was unusual in terms of the number of days and volume of evidence.