A black and white photo from the last time Alberta had a provincial police force, featuring four uniformed officers and a dog. Image: Provincial Archives of Alberta

On Friday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney promised that Alberta municipalities policed by the Mounties won’t have to pay any more for a provincial force than they do now.

“We’re going to guarantee them that this model would not cost them one cent more,” the premier told a news conference on another topic.

Not that Kenney’s promises are a reliable guide to what actually happens when he gets his way, but this one seems particularly unlikely to be kept.

Still, as the high-pressure sales pitch from the premier shows, it’s increasingly obvious that creating an Alberta provincial police force is one of the highest priorities on Kenney’s to-do list.

The question is why, and the answers aren’t necessarily obvious.

Any honest accounting of the cost of creating a provincial police force from the ground up is likely to show the project inspired by Stephen Harper’s 2001 Firewall Letter is certain to be massively expensive.

Ralph Klein, Alberta’s premier at the time Harper and a small group of Americanized right-wing academics at the University of Calgary penned the petulant and quasi-separatist manifesto, sensibly spiked the idea.

Harper, for his part, quickly dropped it when his political career led him to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2006, where he survived until 2015.

But now that Canada’s natural governing party, the Liberals, are back in power in Ottawa and the former PM is the éminence grise of the Kenney government, the Alberta beachhead of his dark vision for Canada, it has emerged again as a priority.

It’s possible a meaningful estimate of the likely cost of this project is contained in the $2-million report by PricewaterhouseCoopers commissioned by the Kenney government and completed by the multinational consulting firm in April.

We wouldn’t know about that, though, because the government is sitting on it, presumably to ensure the political campaign for the premier’s pet project can take place without its likely opponents having access to accurate information.

We do know that Ottawa pays $112.4 million directly to the approximately $375 million cost of RCMP service now, in addition to another $40 million or so for vehicles and detachment offices.

Whether Ottawa would be as forthcoming with that money for a provincial force that is certain to be highly controversial is another matter entirely. Nor is it clear what economies of scale enjoyed by the RCMP would be lost to a force in a single province of only 4.4 million people.

Perhaps Kenney’s confidence can be explained by a belief Ottawa will continue to fork over the dough no matter what uniform Alberta’s provincial police wear.

If so, it sounds like another high-risk bet, just like the $1.3 billion or more he gambled in 2020 on Donald Trump being re-elected president of the United States and allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to be completed.

In this case, he’d be betting Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives will somehow defy the odds and win the next federal election. That could happen, but it seems less promising than Trump’s chances of re-election when Kenney gave our money away to TC Energy Corp., whence it has disappeared.

Someone is bound to say Kenney would like to derail the RCMP’s investigation of the shenanigans that took place in during his 2017 campaign to lead the UCP, which the federal force insists is still ongoing.

This may be so, but it’s unlikely to be the motivation for this effort. The time frame is just too short. Anyway, it’s said here the RCMP investigation will never result in charges against the people who benefitted the most from the so-called “kamikaze” campaign and other rule-breaking in the service of Kenney’s candidacy.

More hints are found in the report of the so-called Fair Deal Panel, completed in May 2020 and released to the public in mid-June.

Apparently lacking any better ideas, the panel just put Harper’s 2001 sovereignty-association screed into the microwave, gave it a couple of turns at low power, and — voilà! — served it up, barely warm.

The panel — which included separatist-leaning Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, since expelled from the UCP Caucus, and Preston Manning, the superannuated godfather of the Canadian right — recommended the replacement of the RCMP with a provincial force as everyone expected from the get-go.

The arguments presented were sketchy, tendentious, often misleading, and delivered complete with right-wing dog-whistles.

One bugbear of the UCP base — gun-control laws — featured prominently in the UCP panel’s logic. “Many legitimate gun owners were also concerned about the RCMP’s heavy-handed enforcement of gun laws,” the report said. The problem, presumably, being that the law of the land is being enforced, not necessarily that the enforcement is heavy handed.

As ever, there has been constant dog-whistling about how this plan will put policing in the hands of real Albertans from Alberta communities, as the premier put it Friday, “where girls and boys can dream of become a police officer and serving in their community for the rest of their lives, a community that they understand.” We all know what this really means.

And then there are those inconvenient activists.

Albertans, the report said, felt “that the RCMP was too bureaucratic to respond to local needs, that the force’s habit of moving officers around the province or country hurt police effectiveness, and that the RCMP was unable or unwilling to confront activists who terrorize farmers.” (Emphasis added).

Never mind that the bureaucracy referenced was almost certainly that inconvenient thing called due process, the Mounties haven’t moved officers around the country like they used to for decades, and activists don’t terrorize farmers, although some may criticize their treatment of animals and an Alberta rail line was once blocked for a few hours.

The government’s spin on the issue was arguably closer to what it really has in mind in a news release published in October 2020 announcing the appointment of PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct the transition study: RCMP members, it said, “are unable or unwilling to confront activists.”

The suggestion the real goal of forming a provincial police force unimpeded by Canada’s profound national commitment to due process and constitutional rights is to “confront activists” should trouble us all — particularly in light of UCP legislation severely restricting free speech and other forms of constitutionally protected protest that take place on nebulously defined “critical infrastructure.”

And with a governing political party that is obsessed with portraying protesters who leave chalk drawings on the sidewalks outside UCP MLAs’ offices as criminals, we can have a pretty good idea what our expensive new provincial police force will be concentrating on when they’re not enforcing Ottawa’s gun laws.

As Scott Schmidt wrote in the Medicine Hat News way back in October 2020, “when all is said and done, just remember that Alberta’s provincial cops won’t be here to police Ottawa, they’ll be here to police you.”

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Provincial Archives of Alberta

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...