A former West Kootenay police officer has started a movement which has spread throughout the country in protest of working conditions within the RCMP.
Former Kaslo top cop Sgt. Chris Backus (now with the Sunshine Coast detachment), risked censure or even dismissal by approaching the media with a ‘yellow stripe campaign’ to send a message to the government – and it’s a message being heard loud and clear here in Castlegar and Trail.
Castlegar RCMP Cpl. Dave Johnson said the vast majority of members in his detachment are either covering the iconic stripes on the legs of their uniforms, or simply purchasing blue cargo pants without the stripe, after Public Safety Canada announced RCMP payment packages on April 5.
“Some are wearing issued pants without the stripe, as well,” he added (for example, the dog-handlers uniforms don’t have stripes).
Trail top cop Sgt. Darren Oelke said about half of his members are participating in the campaign.
“We have a bit of a split in the detachment on this issue,” Oelke said, adding that he has not been directed to reprimand members who choose to protest in this manner. “We’re being encouraged to be understanding of the frustration they’re feeling.
“It’s not like they’re defacing the uniform,” he added. “And this will in no way impact the excellent level of service and professionalism they provide our community.”
Oelke said the campaign appears to be getting some traction, explaining the National Police Federation (NPF) is one of three organizations lobbying to represent RCMP members in labour negotiations.
“NPF numbers have almost tripled in the last seven to 10 days, so that may be an indicator (of the level of discontent),” he said.
Indeed, social media has exploded with the hashtag #backus, and manufacturers are producing #backus coffee mugs, hats, T-shirts, dresses, pants and more.
Backus himself, in a telephone interview Friday, acknowledged the irony of his name being the battle cry for a campaign for the government to, quite literally, ‘Back Us’, but said that was an unintentional coincidence.
He also said he’ll proudly accept any censure that comes from spear-heading a protest campaign in a paramilitary organization which traditionally tightly regulates its members’ access to the press.
“We come from a culture where we’re muzzled and told not to speak to the media – but not anymore,” he said. “If they put a reprimand in my file, I’ll gladly frame it and hang it on my wall. I’ve never been more proud to be a Mountie.”
He said he’s received thousands of messages of support from across the country, including from high-ranking officers, and stressed his love for, and commitment to, the RCMP. The problem, he said, is not the merit of the organization or the excellent men and women who serve within it, but rather the stress, fatigue and sometimes outright danger to which those men and women are exposed when continually asked to do the same job with less and less staff, money, resources and support.
“The RCMP as an organization is a sinking ship that is taking on water and has been for decades,” he said, adding these issues were very much in play during his tenure here in the West Kootenay. “We have officers on the street right now with expired bullet-proof vests, and expired police cars – even just pants. If your uniform pants get ripped, you can end up waiting seven months for new ones. When it comes to equipment, the RCMP has become the Wal-Mart of policing.”
He also said pay is far from being the only issue, but it’s certainly a significant one, with municipal forces paying such higher wages that recruitment and retention have become severe problems. In fact, the CBC reported on April 8 (for their full coverage, click here) that the entry level salary for an officer with the RCMP is $50,674, while a constable with the Vancouver Police Department on probation earns $68,443. Backus said this means smaller detachments like ours in the West Kootenay are often short-handed.
“We’re saying to the government, ‘Wake up’.”
Even local MP Richard Cannings has weighed in on the issue – in a column published April 3, he said, “The root cause of much of this discontent is years of cost-cutting that has resulted in unfair compensation and understaffing.” (To see the entire column, click here).