Costs drove out Alberta's first police force, RCMP expert says

·4 min read

Alberta once had its own provincial police force, but tough times forced the province to delegate the responsibility and the cost back to the federal government, according to a policing expert.

Much debate has ensued across the province after the UCP government released new details Aug. 16 on what a provincial police force would look like.

Steve Hewitt, an RCMP expert at the University of Birmingham, said Alberta's first provincial police force was formed in 1917 and ran until 1932. At the time of its inception the federal force was putting pressure on the province to take over some policing duties so Canada could send units off to the First World War.

“The mounted police itself wanted to be more specialized,” Hewitt said. “They just didn't have the numbers to continue to do all of the roles they were trying to do.”

Through the 1920s Alberta's police force handled daily policing in the province while the RCMP enforced federal statutes and performed other tasks, such as spying on communists, Hewitt said.

But Prairie provinces were hit hard during the Great Depression in the 1930s and Alberta could no longer continue to fund its provincial police force.

In 1932 the province handed the job back to the federal government.

“It was a big savings for the provinces, especially during the Great Depression, to go to move away from [a provincial policing] model,” Hewitt said.

The debate currently brewing in Alberta parallels past debates over a provincial force, Hewitt said, adding he can see both sides of the argument.

It can be more democratic to have the police force closer those who are using it, Hewitt said, but when it comes to efficiency, a national police force tends to lower the cost of providing the service.

The RCMP was first created by the federal government to take control of the newly acquired colonies in the 1870s. It was a heavily militarized force.

“You've had this institution that has never sort of had roots in the places that it's policed,” Hewitt said.

The RCMP became a national symbol for the country, which can make the idea of it more difficult to part with, Hewitt said.

“It's a sort of strange situation, to have a police force that plays that role as a national symbol. It's almost a symbol of colonialism as well,” Hewitt said.

This also creates challenges regarding reconciliation with Indigenous people, as the RCMP that was part of their colonial oppression is still operating in the province, Hewitt said.

Ireland reformed its police force as a sign of peace and reconciliation after The Troubles, a sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1998.

The Troubles saw a battle between the mostly Protestant Unionists, who wanted to stay connected with the United Kingdom at the time, and the mostly Catholic Nationalists, who advocated a united Ireland.

The debate turned violent and sparked many years of fighting in the country.

The establishment of an effective and legitimate police service was fundamental to the resolution of the conflict in Ireland at the time, Hewitt said.

The police in that country were a symbol of state authority, he said. “That was part of the reconciliation and part of the peace process ... to get rid of the symbol, which was reviled in the Catholic community,” Hewitt said.

A similar move could be made in Canada, Hewitt said, however it isn’t clear that Alberta is attempting to replace the RCMP with a provincial force to further reconciliation with Indigenous people.

The RCMP would still operate in Alberta, policing federal statues, so the RCMP wouldn’t be removed completely, Hewitt said.

There is also an argument in favor of scaling back the RCMP to a smaller, more specialized force which would perform fewer tasks but do a better job at them.

“To me, what would be the best solution would be to have RCMP that is smaller and more elite in terms of its operations and maybe called something else and different uniforms and more of a modern police force that breaks away from colonial history,” Hewitt said.

But that would also require all of the provinces to step up and create their own provincial police forces, Hewitt said, not just Alberta, something he noted is unlikely to happen.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette