MONTREAL - The windup of a federal program that was aimed at putting more cops on the street is threatening anti-gang squads and aboriginal police and could stretch existing police resources across the country, law enforcement officials say.
The Police Officer Recruitment Fund was set up in 2008 with the aim of adding 2,500 more police officers in Canada.
The federal government budgeted $400 million for the fund as part of its tough-on-crime agenda.
Provinces were given the responsibility of deciding how to spend the money and the two most populous ones received the biggest share, with $156 million going to Ontario and $92.3 million to Quebec.
In Quebec, several regional organized-crime squads were set up as well as Project Eclipse, a Montreal city police unit originally targeting street gangs which has since had its mandate widened to focus on organized crime. The force's cyber-crime squad has also been beefed up.
That eclipse squad is one of the units fighting a renewal of Mob violence linked to a power struggle in the Montreal Mafia.
Now its future is in doubt, as the program ends in March.
Montreal police Chief Marc Parent said in an interview the force is trying to keep the funds flowing.
"We're still working on it with the federal minister to make sure we can have a good discussion about the reality we have in Montreal," he said. "We still are positive that we can find a solution about that.
"I'm still optimistic."
In Alberta, $42.4 million from the fund allowed for the hiring of 83 officers to bolster the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team, which has targeted gangs, drugs and child exploitation throughout the province since 2006.
However, Michelle Davio, a spokeswoman for the provincial Justice and Solicitor General Department, said funding for the 83 positions will extend to the 2014-15 budget year because of when it began to be allocated.
The federal government had little to say when asked about the program.
Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, responded in an email that reaffirmed the government's committment to cracking down on gangs.
"We were pleased to make a significant one-time investment in the provinces and territories to help them bolster their police forces and ensure they had the tools to crack down on gun, gang and drug crime," she said in an email.
"We will continue to crack down on gangs and organized crime across the country through tough measures, like our new sentences for gun crimes associated with organized crime, including drive-by shootings."
But Chief Stephen Tanner, who is president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, was less upbeat in an interview and predicted difficult consequences ahead as the funding ends.
He pointed particularly to shortfalls in aboriginal policing, where 11 officers will likely be cut from the 150-strong Nishnawabe-Aski Police Service, one of North America's largest indigenous police departments.
"That's critical for them," said Tanner, who is also chief of the Halton Regional Police Service.
Tanner pointed out the Nishnawabe-Aski force, which is spread out across 34 communities, polices some of the most impoverished small towns in Ontario's far north.
"They may have to withdraw their services from one or two small communities," Tanner said.
"If they have to do that, the Ontario Provincial Police may be forced to go in to police those communities."
That would place further strain on the OPP at a time when it's looking at cutting 125 officers, he said. He added that the force is already under the number required.
Tanner said pulling about $1 million in police salary from the aboriginal force could actually end up costing $2 million to $3 million if the OPP has to take over.
"Fiscally, it doesn't make sense."
When the funding was announced in 2008, the Ontario government said $78 million would go toward hiring 125 OPP officers, $58 million would help municipal police hire up to 164 officers and $20 million would be used to fund 40 new police officers for First Nations police services.
The Ontario government said at the time it would continue to lobby Ottawa to make the funding permanent, saying it still fell short of what was needed.
Tanner said police budgets are already tight in Canada.
He noted that the OPP, Toronto Police Service and a number of other forces won't be sending recruits to the police academy class scheduled for May because of belt-tightening.
Asked later about the effect on aboriginal policing, Carmichael's reply in another email repeated almost word-for-word the government's stand concerning the effects on anti-gang squads.
"Our Government is committed to cracking down on crime across the country," she wrote.
"We were pleased to make a significant one-time investment to provinces and territories to help them bolster their police forces and ensure they had the tools they need to crack down on crime. We have enacted over 30 measures aimed at keeping our streets and communities safe and will continue to take action to strengthen Canada's justice system."
Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said the continuation of the Police Officer Recruitment Fund has always been important to his New Democratic Party.
"That program should have been continued and we shouldn't be winding it down," he told a recent news scrum in Montreal.
"There are serious needs. It was a positive role that the government could play in helping those regions of Canada that had the greatest needs fighting gang violence.
Mulcair said the Conservatives "like to snap their suspenders and tell everybody they're a law-and-order government."
"It's an irony to see them scaling back investments on law and order."