For immediate release
August 14, 2019

On July 30th 2019 three Coquitlam residents (the Coquitlam 3) were arrested for allegedly obstructing a Conservation Officer in his attempts to kill a mother bear and her two cubs. The Coquitlam 3 have stated that they did nothing more than film the officer and shout concerns regarding the discharge of firearms in the urban neighbourhood and the killing of two baby bear cubs.

A formal public complaint has now been filed with the Director of Police Services regarding the Coquitlam 3 arrests and phone seizures which I have covered previously. The complaint requests an independent investigation into the allegation that the Conservation Officer dragged a senior citizen from the steps of his home by his shirt. To read the full public complaint click here: Lt_August 12 2019_ Complaint_FACCIN et al(1)

A fundraiser has also been launched to assist the Coquitlam 3 with legal bills. To donate to the legal defense of the Coquitlam 3 please click here: Coquitlam 3 Legal Defense Fund.

An excerpt of this complaint is provided below to help the public understand the BC Conservation Officer Service, its history, and current structure.

A brief background of the BCCOS

The establishment of wildlife and hunting law in BC dates back to 1858 when concerns were raised that over-hunting could have devastating effects on various wildlife populations. Enforcing these laws (also known as game ordinances between 1859 and 1870) has been the responsibility of various departments over the last 100+ years. At first, when BC became a province in 1871, the responsibility for wildlife law enforcement was given to the BC Constabulary (our policing service at the time). In the early 1900s, as a result of lobbying from hunters and game associations, as well as a lack of government police funding, the responsibility was transferred to ministerial control (i.e., not police, but with a ministry enforcement mandate). From there, the late 1920s saw wildlife law enforcement tasks shift again back to the BC Provincial Police.

In 1950 the BC Provincial Police were disbanded; provincial policing was transferred under contract to the RCMP. Wildlife and hunting law enforcement moved back to the responsible ministry of the day and flipped flopped around over the decades with every change in government. The constant change and lack of dedicate funding created significant problems for enforcing provincial wildlife and hunting laws. In 1977 a review of the then Fish and Wildlife Branch was commissioned. The result was a report known as The Mair Report. Among many detailed recommendations, Mair Report highlighted the need for a qualified police officer to oversee wildlife and hunting law enforcement in BC. The report further stated that if policing was to be the role the ministry needed to cautiously evolve away from wildlife management duties and functions (i.e., responding to bear complaints). Various rationales were provided for this recommendation.

While wildlife and hunting law enforcement work share roots with historical provincial policing, contrary to current BC government assertions, the BC Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS) is not “one of the oldest law enforcement agencies in BC.” In actuality, the BCCOS is quite a young organization that is still struggling to find both its identity and place in modern law enforcement systems. While the term “Game Warden” was replaced in the early 1960s with the title “Conservation Officer”, this was not legislated or formalized within BC laws for another forty years.

The BCCOS was formed in 1980, partly in response to the Mair Report recommendations. For over twenty years the BCCOS operated as an armed ad-hoc paramilitary unit with no formal legislative structure, unlike other law enforcement services. In 2003, the Environmental Management Act (EMA) sought to fill the gap. EMA was largely built as commercial waste and pollution control legislation. However, during the writing of EMA the BCCOS became formally legislated. EMA provides that a Chief Conservation Officer can be appointed, and that this Chief can then in turn appoint anyone he sees fit as a Conservation Officer in BC. EMA provides that the Chief may also develop policies internal to the agency respecting the use of equipment and firearms. EMA states, for the purposes of enforcing EMA and other “Acts”, Conservation Officers are peace officers. The BC Wildlife Act was subsequently amended to reflect the definition of “officer” to include a Conservation Officer. Under the Wildlife Act “officer” also includes a constable; this is largely because police have always, to some extent, enforced wildlife and hunting laws in BC.

So, after twenty years of running around and whacking bears, tracking polluters, and disrupting poachers, we end up with commercial waste and pollution legislation forming a law enforcement unit that has peace officers. Problem? A peace officer is not a police officer – a peace officer may enforce certain provincial statutes but is quite restricted in their scope of authority and duties which are varied in each piece of legislation. While all constables in Canada are peace officers at common law, not all peace officers are constables. A police officer has the golden key to enforce all the laws of the land including the Criminal Code of Canada. But with police authority comes a great responsibility including regulated code of conduct and independent oversight and public complaints processes. By 2004, EMA was in force and the BCCOS began the process of formally establishing its Chief Conservation Officer and Conservation Officer positions, albeit within pollution commercial waste, and Wildlife Act enforcement tasks – but with restricted authorities and duties. There was no requirement for the Chief Conservation Officer to hold policing qualifications.

By 2006 the fledgling BCCOS began to set its sights on expanded authorities. The Justice Institute of BC (JIBC) was retained to produce a report regarding what the agency would need to do to get special provincial constable (SPC) status under the BC Police Act. These new appointments would allow BCCOS to act as if they were police under certain circumstances. The rationale for wanting Police Act appointments was spelled out at this time as relating to investigations of poachers and the need to apprehend and interact with armed people in the backcountry. References were made regarding adequate levels of law enforcement in the province. The BCCOS specifically requested the ability to conduct Criminal Code of Canada investigations as if they were a police agency. Firearms offences and obstruction offences were noted as desired to fall within the new authority structure. The JIBC issued its findings in 2006 and made multiple recommendations regarding certain training, procedures, and policies that would have to be implemented before any expanded authorities under the Police Act were given. Concerningly, there was no mention of oversight or the fact the primary legislation pertaining to the BCCOS was not general policing orientated, but rather focused on commercial waste and pollution prevention under provincial statutes. Erroneously, the JIBC states the BCCOS is one of the oldest law enforcement units in BC. Had the JIBC paused to review the legislative structure of the BCCOS it would have found something much different.

After two more years of advocating for expanded authorities, the BC Solicitor General caved. In 2008 a policy agreement was reached between the BCCOS (Ministry of Environment) and policing services branch in which, contingent on certain conditions being met, the BCCOS would be given SPC appointments under the BC Police Act. The agreement focused on the recommendations of the JIBC report, additional training, and most importantly the adoption of a code of conduct regulation under the Police Act, presumably paving the path for independent oversight of conduct issues. This never happened. A regulation respecting complaints against BCCOS officers acting under their SPC appointments was made. However, no code of conduct regulation joined it. problematically, a) the complaints process is completely internal, and b) how is a member of the public to know when a Conservation Officer is acting as an SPC? Or put another way, how is one to tell if an officer is acting as a Conservation Officer or a police Constable?

As the years progressed, the BCCOS developed an internal complaints policy which included a form of code of conduct for Conservation Officers. However, as neither the complaints policy or code of conduct was ever formally legislated, it remains an internal government policy document outside of law – the BCCOS self-investigates itself and decides what is and what is not a conduct issue for investigation.

Current state of affairs

As it stands right now, the BCCOS does have SPC appointments under the Police Act but they are not a police force in BC. They do not have a regulated code of conduct under the Police Act and as such there is no independent civilian review body or police board that can review the conduct of a BCCOS officer. There is significant confusion pertaining to when a Conservation Officer, appointed under EMA and acting under the Wildlife Act, is performing the function of a peace officer or conducting duties simply in an administrative role as a public servant. Put more simply, the question is raised, when is the BCCOS acting as a Conservation Officer, when are they acting as a public servant, and when are they acting as a constable under the Police Act? Even more critical, how is the public supposed to know? Is chasing bears around a duty as a Conservation Officer under the Wildlife Act, an administrative function, or a constabulary function as an SPC? Each one of these scenarios affects people’s rights and freedoms differently. Each one of these scenarios has a different complaints process. Each one of these scenarios has different civil liabilities attached.

The public cannot reasonably be expected to know the complexity of the BCCOS or its multi-level legislative appointments.

How is an individual to discern between a constable, a peace officer, and a public servant? A fundamental principle of justice requires that those exercising authorities as a policing agency are subjected to independent civilian oversight and transparent and accountable complaints processes. The BCCOS operates in the grey and is able to administratively shape shift and control narrative between peace officer and police constable without any form of independent review.

Photo credit: Black bear cubs, Lee-Anne Carver.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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