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Les Leyne: NDP cabinet changed Police Act as MLAs were still reviewing it; aftermath of officer refusing to kill bear cubs

Change was made in response to a B.C. Court of Appeal decision about union jurisdiction that didn't favour government stance
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Domes of the B.C. legislature in downtown Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The NDP cabinet amended the Police Act after some lobbying by the union ­representing government employees while an all-party committee of MLAs was still reviewing that law.

The change was made in response to a B.C. Court of Appeal decision about union jurisdiction, in favour of an ­individual, which the government and the B.C. ­General Employees’ Union lost.

It stems from the long-running aftermath of then-conservation-officer Bryce Casavant’s decision in 2015 to ignore a superior’s orders. A mother bear had entered a house and was declared a nuisance, to be destroyed, along with her two cubs. Casavant killed the sow, as ordered, but spared the cubs, which were relocated instead.

Casavant was disciplined for not ­following orders, reassigned out of the conservation service, and later dismissed. The BCGEU filed for arbitration, but later settled the matter. He objected to the ­settlement and pursued the issue in court. He eventually won in the Court of Appeal, in June 2020. A panel of justices agreed with his stance that conservation officers are sworn special provincial constables, so any disciplinary moves should be made under the Police Act, not the union-management labour contract.

The BCGEU tried to appeal that to the Supreme Court of Canada, but in January 2021 it declined to hear the case.

Casavant said the cabinet order has the effect of bypassing his win in the Court of Appeal. But provincial director of police services Wayne Rideout, who was ­summoned two weeks ago by the ­committee to explain the cabinet order, said it was a minimal interim change designed to clear up ambiguities. He told MLAs, however, there remains a lack of clarity about how a special provincial ­constable is to be disciplined when internal complaints arise.

Although there are few complaints, there are 1,350 such designated constables in various fields.

Lobbyist registry records show the BCGEU approached Labour Minister Harry Bains in January 2021 regarding “an amendment to the Police Act to clarify the discipline/termination process for ­special provincial constables where there is a collective agreement in place.”

Also, in May 2021, a delegation of BCGEU officials contacted various senior government officials on the same topic. The disclosure form says the union was concerned about the “lack of clarity” in the fallout from the Casavant case. They wanted the process for complaints against special provincial constables to run through the collective agreement, not the Police Act.

In between those dates, a union ­representative appeared before the ­all-party committee urging that ­disciplinary matters involving those constables be handled through the collective agreement, not the Police Act. He supplied MLAs with a union-written amendment to the law.

Casavant learned recently that an order-in-council was signed Nov. 22, 2021 by Public Safety Minister Mike ­Farnworth that changes the special provincial ­constable complaint procedure regulation.

It sets out a process for dealing with complaints from the public about special provincial constables. Casavant said the crucial points are that it makes no mention of internal disciplinary measures, like the one he went through, and there is no ­mention of the Police Act.

The union said it wanted the change in order to protect special provincial ­constables’ rights during complaints. But Casavant rejects that position, saying it leaves them relying on the union and government to decide their fate, with no say as sworn officers in the process. “Constables should be able to defend themselves.”

After learning about the cabinet order he wrote to the legislature committee last month saying he was deeply offended such a change would be made in the midst of their work.

“It shows complete disrespect for this committee’s role. … It undermines the operational integrity of the entire review and denies the public and experts input on these changes.”

He said Friday there was no reason to order the law changed before the MLAs on the committee had finished their work.

MLAs concluded many hearings last year and are now deliberating in camera on a report due by April 28.

B.C. Liberal critic Mike de Jong said the cabinet order is an “underhanded” tactic that dismisses the value of the ­committee’s work. It is similar to how the government introduced major ­amendments to freedom of information law last year even while a special all-party legislature committee was reviewing that legislation, he said.

lleyne@timescolonist.com