Disarming BC’s Conservation Corps

March 23, 2005

In law enforcement, appearance is everything. When you wear a uniform, when you have a badge, when you carry a gun, people pay attention.

Police know this and often exploit it to great advantage. Take a few weeks ago, when a dozen RCMP vehicles, including a huge white van emblazoned with the RCMP coat of arms, pulled up at the downtown Toronto headquarters of the Bank of Nova Scotia. Dozens of officers, some wearing black overcoats with stark white RCMP lettering, entered the building armed with a search warrant. The bank’s executives were no doubt displeased to learn that the same white van would remain just outside for several more weeks as RCMP officers searched for desired documents. The message, observed by countless commuters, was that corporate crime is, indeed, a policing priority.

So when our elected leaders and senior bureaucrats quietly propose taking uniforms, badges and guns away from public servants who defend our collective health and wellbeing, it’s worth asking why. A case in point: just whose interests is the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection protecting when it opts for a more “business oriented” approach to enforcing the rules safeguarding our environment?

Many British Columbians may not know it, but we actually have a corps of highly trained men and women whose job is to ensure that a wide range of rules and regulations protecting our water, land and air are met. They have distinct uniforms, have powers of arrest, are licensed to carry firearms and are called Conservation Officers or COs.

We may be aware that these people are occasionally called out to shoot a problem bear or to ticket hunters and anglers for exceeding their catch limits. But COs do a lot more than that. They interrupt illegal trading in animal parts. They monitor farming operations that threaten drinking water supplies. And they play a pivotal role in overseeing polluters whose toxic effluents and air emissions pose serious threats to our collective health and wellbeing.

Companies that illegally pollute commit far more grievous crimes than, say, salmon poachers. These are crimes that have long-lasting human health and environmental consequences. Surely companies that illegally pump carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals into our water and air should be investigated and investigated in highly visible ways. Because it’s visible displays of power that set a tone, that tell the public on whose behalf laws are enacted, that laws will be enforced, no matter who the culprit.

But not, apparently, in B.C.

Late last year, after researching the second of two reports chronicling job losses in provincial government ministries, a brown envelope landed on my desk. No doubt it was sent by a public servant who wished to remain anonymous - the release of information relevant to the public interest being grounds for dismissal.

Inside was a Policy Directive drafted by the executive of the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection and dated November 1, 2004. Among other things, the directive instructs B.C.’s Chief Conservation Officer to “create a more business oriented presence with respect to the proposed commercial/industrial CO unit, through such means as limiting the use of firearms, power of arrest, uniforms and the use of force. For example, officers dealing with commercial/industrial clients should wear business attire and be unarmed.”

Context is everything, especially in this case. In the past 10 years successive provincial governments have decimated the Conservation Officer Service. Today there are only 115 COs in B.C., compared with 152 in 1995. Across the border in Alberta – no hotbed of environmental protection – the corresponding number is 220, nearly twice that here. The cuts have resulted in mind-boggling increases in responsibilities. For example, in 1995 each CO in B.C. had on average responsibility for 625,000 hectares of land. By 2004, it had increased to 825,000 hectares. Just the increase alone added an area equivalent to 500 Stanley Parks to the workload of each CO. By comparison in Alberta the average CO has responsibility for a land area of just 300,355 hectares.

The BC government will, no doubt, make political hay of its pre-election plan to hire 15 additional COs. But bear in mind that those new hires include seven long unfilled vacancies. And even with the added hires, CO staffing will be 15 per cent below its 1995 level.

Clearly, a lot of environmental protection is falling by the wayside. Nowhere more so than in urban centres where populations continue growing and where the highest concentration of polluters is found. For example, we know that in the Greater Vancouver and Victoria areas unscrupulous industries have illegally dumped toxic metals and chemicals into the sewer system. We also know from provincial government records that untold volumes of hazardous wastes are unaccounted for because companies that were legally required to report the toxins they handled failed to do so.

Again, these are crimes with huge health and environmental implications. If we take uniforms, powers of arrest and guns away from the few remaining people who enforce our environmental laws, we may as well get rid of the people too. It’s a dead certainty that the commercial and industrial “clients” our elected leaders and their senior bureaucrats speak of want just that. Sadly, they have a receptive ear in Victoria.


Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.