Over the past two weeks, more than 100 protesters have been arrested trying to stop the logging of one of the last areas of pristine ancient forest remaining in North America, on Vancouver Island’s southwest coast.
As these arrests have played out, a second story has emerged — one of a federal police force that has exceeded its legal authority in imposing broad exclusion zones and restricting media access to the area.
“For the past two weeks the media has missed a lot of what has happened,” explained journalist Cherise Seucharan on a recent episode of the Canadaland podcast, “including dozens of arrests, and that means the public has missed it too. And you can't go back in time to rectify that.”
The courts and the RCMP’s own oversight body have both said that the force does not have the legal authority to use injunctions and “exclusion zones” to restrict press freedom, and yet it keeps happening. So often, in fact, that a large coalition of press groups and media outlets (including Ricochet) announced a legal challenge to the RCMP’s enforcement of this injunction order last week.
When the national police force ignores the courts and its own oversight body, and continues to act in ways that both have suggested are unlawful, who is responsible?
The answer to that question, at least in this case, is simple: the buck stops with Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth of B.C.’s NDP government.
The Solicitor General works with the Attorney General to oversee the justice system, and provide legal advice to government. In this role, Farnworth is responsible for oversight of the RCMP.
British Columbia’s silent Solicitor General
Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have provincial police forces, but in the rest of the country the RCMP are contracted for provincial or territorial policing. This includes B.C., where the RCMP carry out both federal and provincial policing.
In other words, when the RCMP raid camps like those at Wet’suwet’en last year and the Fairy Creek area this past month, they’re acting on behalf of the provincial government.
In Wet’suwet’en last year, Ricochet’s Jerome Turner was turned back at checkpoints, detained for eight hours by the RCMP during a raid and generally obstructed from doing his job.
Ricochet communicated repeatedly with Farnworth’s office during that period, first in a series of emails asking them to exercise their oversight of the RCMP, which we were told were “forwarded to the RCMP” despite our protestations that our complaints were about the RCMP, and then in a request for an interview with Farnworth that was denied and a series of specific questions for his office that were ignored.
In mid-May, after Ricochet journalists were once again turned back at an RCMP checkpoint, this time in the Fairy Creek area, Ricochet reached out again to the senior press contact in Farnworth’s office, Caroline McAndrews. She has received a copy of every email we’ve sent.
She said she was looking into the issue of journalists being obstructed. She didn’t get back to us.
Late last week, Ricochet reached out again for comment from the Solicitor General on the unprecedented legal application just announced by a coalition of media outlets. The coalition is seeking a court order directing the RCMP to stop interfering with, and denying access to, working journalists. A junior spokesperson responded that Farnworth couldn’t comment because the matter was before the courts.
We pointed out there was a concern the Solicitor General was trying to avoid his responsibility for oversight of the RCMP’s actions, given his refusal to comment last year or to intervene earlier in May, before media outlets felt forced to take their concerns to court.
So we asked a fairly simple question: Can the Solicitor General commit to an interview on this issue once the matter is no longer before the courts?
If the one person legally responsible for the actions of the RCMP in the province of British Columbia can’t comment before legal action is initiated, while it is ongoing or after it is concluded, what conclusion should the public draw?
Then Ricochet got an email from McAndrews, but it wasn’t meant for us.
“I will send this to Don Z and recommend we do not respond, in the interim, leave it,” she wrote, presumably in reference to Don Zadravec, deputy minister of Government Communications and Public Engagement.
McAndrews had meant to respond to her subordinate, telling him to ignore our request.
We followed up, again asking if the Solicitor General could commit to an interview once the matter was no longer before the courts. McAndrews did not answer the question, but did say that “operational decisions, including management of media on-site, are the responsibility of the RCMP and at arms length from government.”
A pattern of ducking the question
These types of misfires by political staffers are not that uncommon, but this one established a key piece of the story. The Solicitor General’s office had no intention of agreeing to an interview, or answering questions on this situation, before, during or after the legal application.
When a politician says they can’t comment on something before the courts, there’s a kernel of truth to it. In this case, because of McAndrews’ accidental email, we know that the court case may not be what’s stopping the Solicitor General from commenting.
The only democratic oversight over a police force like the RCMP comes through the government that employs them, personified in this case by the Solicitor General of British Columbia. If he is unresponsive, then Attorney General David Eby has a positive duty to remind the government of its constitutional obligations. What that positive duty means in legal terms is that, unlike other members of cabinet, Eby is obliged to ensure the law is upheld as his first priority — before any partisan or political considerations. The Attorney General is often referred to as the “guardian of the public interest” at the cabinet table.
Eby’s office has consistently directed questions to the Solicitor General, but that doesn’t address the Attorney General’s specific obligation to ensure the government, and government officials such as RCMP officers, are acting within the law.
The Solicitor General is responsible for oversight of the RCMP, but the Attorney General and Premier John Horgan also have an obligation to ensure the force is not acting beyond their legal authority.
If the government chooses to abdicate their responsibility for oversight, because it is politically inopportune or messy or whatever other reason of convenience they might give, then we have a situation where the police are functionally accountable to no one.