When the Conservative government unveiled a $400-million five-year fund to help provinces recruit police officers in 2008, it was billed as a key part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s law-and-order agenda. Former public safety minister Peter Van Loan told the House the following year the new officers were necessary after more than a decade of Liberal failure to take crime seriously. And in Quebec, at least, the money went to fund anti-gang and cybercrime squads—with the latter playing a key role in hunting down Luka Magnotta, the man accused of killing and dismembering a Chinese student in Montreal and posting a video of the alleged crime online.
Now, with the agenda in Ottawa focused squarely on austerity, and the funding for the program due to run out soon, the future of the police officer recruitment fund is becoming just the latest point of tension between the Harper Tories and Quebec.
Funding for the recruitment program is set to expire at the end of March. Several municipal and provincial leaders, including Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, have called on the federal government to renew it. But the federal government has repeatedly said that if the provinces want to keep the 2,500 officers nationwide that the fund covered, they’ll have to pony up the cash themselves.
In many provinces the end of the program is raising concerns. But given the state of Quebec-Ottawa relations, the fund’s fate is proving to be powerful sovereignist fodder. Stéphane Bergeron, the province’s public safety minister, warns the move will heavily impact Quebec’s law-enforcement efforts. In November the national assembly voted unanimously on a motion Bergeron introduced demanding Ottawa renew the fund. Quebec may also be getting ready to replace some or all of Ottawa’s funding, which totalled $92 million. While a spokesperson for Bergeron said the government will wait until the March deadline to decide what to do, rumours are that the PQ is strongly considering kicking in the money. Such a move by Marois would support the sovereignist narrative that the federal government is shirking its responsibility in Quebec—the Parti Québécois government picked a similar fight last year over the government’s axing of the long-gun registry, which Quebec plans to resurrect.
Bloc Québécois MP Maria Mourani, an author and expert on Montreal’s crime underworld, says the fight against organized crime is at risk. Provinces were free to spend their share of the fund as they wished, and of the sum Quebec received, $38 million went to staffing a 46-person anti-gang “Eclipse squad” in Montreal. Mourani says a recent spike in gang murders makes the squad more critical than ever. Mourani notes Montreal police also dedicated more resources to a cybercrime unit, which has been critical in fighting child exploitation online and helped track Magnotta’s digital footprint.
Julie Carmichael, director of communications for the public safety minister, points to the Harper government’s efforts to stiffen sentencing for organized crime. But this has failed to satisfy critics. “It’s incoherent,” says Mourani. “They’re in favour of law and order, but they won’t fund it.”