A conservation officer refused to kill two baby bears. Now his former union wants to fight him at the Supreme Court

VANCOUVER—Five years ago, a Vancouver Island conservation officer was fired after he defied orders and refused to kill two bear cubs.

In June, Bryce Casavant won a legal battle over his dismissal. But now, his former union wants to continue the fight at the country’s highest court.

The B.C. Government Service and Employees’ Union (BCGEU) filed a request to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada on Sept. 21, challenging the B.C. Court of Appeal’s ruling for upending “years of labour relations between the employer (the province) and union.”

The union’s move to make an appeal to the Supreme Court came as a complete surprise to Casavant.

“What are they trying to do? I have no budget for this. My legal fees have been coming out of a small military pension. Now, there’s no end in sight,” he told the Star.

Casavant’s lawyer filed a response to the Supreme Court Thursday, questioning why the union is making “sweeping new arguments” it hadn’t raised earlier.

The union’s legal department said it could not comment on why it didn’t put forth its current arguments in previous court hearings.

“Unfortunately, this question goes to the heart of the issues before the Supreme Court of Canada and it would be inappropriate for us to delve into those issues anywhere other than before the court,” the department said in an emailed statement.

“The BCGEU is examining all options to get the clarity our members need. The Supreme Court application is one of those options. The Supreme Court is the only way to address the legal issues raised by the Court of Appeal decision that have had an immediate and substantial impact on our members,” the statement continued.

In June, Bryce Casavant won a legal battle over his dismissal after he defied orders and refused to kill two bear cubs. But now, his former union wants to continue the fight at the country's highest court.

The case attracted a lot of international attention — with many observers including celebrities backing Casavant. He had euthanized the cubs’ mother, who had been eating garbage inside a mobile home park in Port Hardy.

But he judged that her cubs, who were only about two months old and the “size of two small dogs,” had a chance to be rehabilitated and brought them to a veterinarian instead.

Casavant defended himself through much of the court proceedings since May 2017, arguing that as a special constable, the decision of discharging his firearm was his to make.

Casavant told the Star in a previous interview: “A constable has independent discretion. It’s their badge, their service weapon. It’s their individual appointment under the Police Act. They’re more than an employee.”

B.C.’s highest court agreed, and at the time, the union didn’t dispute that constables have special status compared to regular unionized employees.

The union, however, took the side of his employer and joined the province in fighting him in court. The BCGEU wanted Casavant to accept a monetary settlement and move to a different job.

The B.C. Court of Appeal’s landmark ruling in June nullified Casavant’s firing and confirmed that special constables are police, so discipline-related matters fall under the Police Act rather than the collective agreement between Casavant’s union and the Ministry of Environment.

Casavant has since been in talks with the Ministry of Environment to return to work, and he says he is eager to move on with his life.

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Bryce Casavant defended himself through much of the court proceedings since May 2017, arguing that as a special constable, the decision of discharging his firearm was his to make.

BCGEU president Stephanie Smith told the Star that the case isn’t about Casavant, and they are representing the interests of their 523 special constable members who are now in a “legal limbo.”

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“For over 40 years, our union has represented members of special countable status using collective agreements … containing lots of steps and protections for union members. The Police Act is beyond skeletal in comparison, and it’s created a lot of confusion,” she said in an interview.

“If they face discipline, they can’t use their collective agreements, the decision seems to say. We’re seeking clarity.”

If the Supreme Court accepts the appeal case, a new decision could affect thousands of special constables in Canada working in enforcement areas including liquor and gambling licensing as well as natural resources and the environment, since a proportion of this group are also members of unions.

“I’m flummoxed by the union’s behaviour here. I honestly can’t explain what they’re doing,” Casavant’s lawyer Arden Beddoes told the Star.

“It’s been a lot of money and time and a huge headache for him,” Beddoes said about his client, adding that court delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic meant Casavant hasn’t received full compensation for the legal costs awarded to him by the B.C. Court of Appeal in June.

Joanna Chiu

Joanna Chiu is a Vancouver-based reporter covering both Canada-China relations and current affairs on the West Coast for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu