The Ministry of Environment is looking to buy 147 semi-automatic carbines for conservation officers in Saskatchewan.
In a request for proposals posted this week, the ministry said the weapons are needed to keep officers safe, noting they often deal with “high risk individuals, that are often armed.”
Assistant deputy minister Kevin Murphy said the carbines will help the ministry comply with a court decision related to the death of four Mounties in Moncton, N.B. The ruling said the RCMP had failed to properly equip the officers who were killed by Justin Bourque in June 2014.
Murphy said the ministry determined those same risks apply to conservation officers, who are often on the front lines of potentially dangerous situations.
“In a number of cases, our officers are encountering people who are armed with rifles, both regular encounters with the hunting public and in some cases the criminal element,” he said.
He mentioned a few cases where officers had to deal with people using prohibited magazines that held a large number of rounds.
Conservation officers currently carry a handgun, a shotgun, OC spray and handcuffs, according to Murphy. The department is looking to equip them with body armour, in addition to the carbines.
The carbines will use the AR action type and fire 5.56 x 45 mm NATO ammunition, according to the request for proposals. Murphy said that will ensure they’re compatible with weapons already used by the RCMP.
Eventually, each patrol vehicle used by conservation officers will be equipped with one of the carbines. The ministry is looking to acquire 15 by the end of this year, in order to move forward with a training regimen. Murphy could not confirm when the remaining carbines will be made available to front-line conservation officers.
“There is a significant amount of training that is required for an officer to undertake a weapon like this, and we will not do that until they are fully trained,” he said.
The prospect of conservation officers armed with AR-type weapons is of “grave” concern to FSIN Vice Chief Heather Bear, who said some officers “disrespect” First Nations jurisdiction and have run-ins with hunters pursuing their treaty rights.
She said many in Indigenous communities fear the officers. In Bear’s view, the carbines could create more intimidation and risk putting her people in a “vulnerable and unfair situation.”
“ I really don’t understand why these conservation officer sare needing to arm themselves,” she said. “Those conservation officers are more high-risk, they put our people in harm’s way.”
But Murphy responded that, over the 20 years conservation officers have carried firearms, there has never been an instance where they’ve discharged a weapon in an incident with any member of the public.
“That shows that it’s safe and effective to deploy those tools, and this will only enhance that safety, not degrade it,” he said.
He said the carbines have nothing to do with the Protection and Response Teams the province rolled out last year to address rural crime, a decision Bear also criticized at the time. Those teams bring together RCMP, highway enforcement officers, conservation officers and municipal police forces to increase the visibility of armed officers in rural areas.
Bear acknowledged there’s been no history of shootings involving conservation officers. But she said that just proves there’s no reason for the ministry to bring in more firepower.
“When you’re out there hunting you’re there to hunt, you’re not there to create violence,” she said.
“It just scares me that they might want to hurt one of our fellas.”
Bear said the FSIN will be notifying all chiefs of the plan for the weapons through a communique. She said she had not heard about the decision prior to the tender showing up online.
Some First Nations leaders have good relationships with conservation officers, according to Bear, but she pointed to ongoing skepticism with the justice system over the Gerald Stanley case to explain the apprehension over the carbines.
“I really don’t think we’re ready for someone to have that power behind the trigger yet, becauseof the setensions,” she said.
“It’s pretty darn scary, I’ll tell you.”