The B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) has charged that the British Columbia Conservation Officer Service (COS) has been allowing unsafe working conditions for its officers for years, through chronic understaffing.
On July 14, the union publicly released two reports, one dated June 30, 2011 and the other finalized on May 6, 2013; both dealt with staffing issues. The earlier report, an internal study completed by then-chief conservation officer Edward Illi, stated that the province needed an increase of 40 conservation officers in order to achieve sufficient strength and that the COS’ single-officer posts went against both the Canada Labour Code and the provincial Workers Compensation Act, exposing officers to safety risks.
The second report, completed by Society of British Columbia Conservation Officers (SOBCCO) president Darryl Struthers, charted the COS’ staffing levels from 2001 to 2012. Over that period, Struthers found, the service reduced its staff by 32 per cent, while problem wildlife calls increased by 70 per cent and poaching and polluting calls by 56 per cent over the same period.
“That leaves the issue of under-resourcing for conservation officers and occupational health and safety risks that they face,” said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith, noting that there were currently nine offices in B.C. that employed lone conservation officers. At the time of the Illi report, the province had contained 14.
“Government’s response to that was to close some of the offices and consolidate them. But we still have nine,” said Smith. “They don’t just respond to problem wildlife calls; they’re also required to attend to illegal poaching or pollution calls, the illegal sale of animal wildlife parts, burlaps.
“If you think about a police officer attending a call that they know there is a high likelihood that where they’re going, there may be weapons, you wouldn’t send one.”
The province’s Ministry of Environment, which runs the COS, did not respond to COHSN’s request for an interview.
BCGEU’s release of the reports followed the recent international media attention on the suspension of Bryce Casavant, a B.C. conservation officer who had reportedly clashed with his superiors after refusing to put down a pair of orphaned bear cubs. “He was in a single-officer office,” explained Smith.
She added that her union had been speaking out about the understaffing issue for many years, citing a front-page story in the Province that had confronted the issue in an interview with a retired officer. “It sort of quietly went away,” Smith said.
The union has discussed under-resourcing with several B.C. government ministries, including the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. “We’ve been raising the issue of understaffing and under-resourcing in these Ministries for a very long time, and since I became president last year, I know I’ve spoken about it numerous times.”
But Smith speculated that the Christy Clark government was concerned more about saving money than about the welfare of its conservation officers. “They insist on a balanced budget, and sometimes, it’s at the expense of public services. We have the leanest public sector in Canada.
“And it usually takes a bit of a crisis to highlight the impact.”
Illi’s report is available online at http://www.bcgeu.ca/sites/default/files/postings/attachments/COS-Enforcement_Resourcing_Model.pdf, while the SOBCCO report can be viewed at http://www.bcgeu.ca/sites/default/files/postings/attachments/Staffing-Level-Comparison-2001-2012-May-2013.pdf.