Rural municipalities want Alberta government to halt new victim services model

Rural Municipalities of Alberta, a group representing municipal districts and counties across Alberta, is pushing the government to stop the transition to a provincially-run victim services model.

The current system relies on local boards with paid and volunteer staff that help people who are victims of crime through the court system.

The new model is rolling out now with full implementation scheduled by fall. The government says it will provide more stable funding, add coverage to communities that lacked victim services and employ more full-time equivalents.

But Paul McLauchlin, president of Rural Municipalities of Alberta and the reeve of Ponoka County, says that's not what's happening in his area.

The town of Rimbey, which is located within Ponoka County, used to have a full-time person dedicated to victim services. McLauchlin says the position has been reduced to half-time under the new model.

"None of this even makes any sense," McLauchlin said in an interview with CBC News. "And the deployment has been such a disaster."

The switch was first announced by former justice minister Tyler Shandro in 2022. Four regional boards would replace the 62 victim services units across the province.

The RMA says the new model reduces front-line help available for victims in communities.

Arthur Green, press secretary for Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis, said the number of full-time equivalents has increased from 130 to 153 positions.

Green said 14 areas didn't have victim services. The new model would ensure every RCMP detachment in Alberta would have access.

Green said he couldn't confirm how many people would actually work full-time hours as hiring is still underway. Two followup emails from CBC News asking Green about the situation in Rimbey were not answered.

Green responded on Tuesday, after this story was published.

"The regional societies are independent, and they make their own staffing decisions for the units in their regions," he said in a statement.

McLauchlin has reached out to the town of Rimbey to see if it is interested in contributing funding so the current person can remain full-time.

Rimbey Mayor Rick Pankiw shares McLauchlin's concerns. Like the reeve, he has had no luck getting the province to reconsider.

"We would like someone to tell us why another municipality that has less cases or a smaller caseload than ours …warrants a full-time position and Rimbey does not," he said.

Lower pay, part-time hours

Romesh Persaud also has difficulties with the new system. The chair of Camrose and District Victim Services Society said he raised questions about the change last summer.

A month and a half later, Persaud said the society was given 30 days' notice that its funding and contract were ending. Victim services has moved temporarily to the Camrose Police Service until the new model is fully implemented this fall.

Persaud is a retired director of the Edmonton Remand Centre who spent 37 years with Alberta corrections.

He said he has tried getting a meeting with Ellis, without any success. He met with Camrose UCP MLA Jackie Lovely and has met with Maskwacis-Wetaskiwin MLA and cabinet minister Rick Wilson, but he hasn't heard any followup on his concerns.

Persaud said the local program manager or advocate would stay with a crime victim throughout the entire process under the old system, but he's worried that won't happen under the regional model.

"I've disclosed the trauma that I've gone through and now you're just handing me off to somebody that's in court with me?" Persaud said.

"What the heck do they know? I'm not going to sit down just before I appear in court, perhaps as a witness for the Crown, and tell you all this stuff in five or 10 minutes."

McLauchlin thinks the victim services transition will become more of an issue as municipalities start seeing what's proposed for their communities.

RMA research has found that the $27 to $32.40 hourly wage under the new model is lower than the $38.41 average hourly wage for program managers under the current setup.

Green said that some staff were paid much less than the average and will now receive a full benefits package and retirement plan under the new model.

RMA said many of these new court and support navigator positions will be part-time, making it difficult to recruit people with the proper skills and training. Current program managers will also have to apply for the new positions.

McLauchlin worries a lot of experienced staff will end up leaving. He said it isn't too late for the government to walk back the changes.

"We could stop it right now, brush ourselves off and really make sure that we provide those folks the resources they need to be successful," he said.