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First Nations police force to fold without more funding

A half-finished police department stands in Peawanuck, Ont. Jennifer Tryon/Global News

Fund it or fold it – that’s the ultimatum facing Ottawa and the province on the future of Northern Ontario’s First Nations police force.

The agreement that keeps the 140 Nishnawbe Aski Police Service officers at work in 35 remote First Nations communities runs out at the end of the month.

Unless there is a bump in the budget and improved standards, Nishnawbe Aski Nation says it will pull the plug.

“We’ve lost lives,” said Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. “The current agreement continues to compromise the lives and safety of our community members as well as our officers. And we cannot in good conscience sign on to another agreement under the circumstances.”

The police force is jointly funded by Ottawa at 52 per cent and Ontario at 48 per cent, with an annual budget of $25 million. The third partner in the agreement is the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, whose members are policed by the force.

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The nation has been asking its government partners to negotiate a new agreement for four years. Instead it received a letter on March 7 to say funding will be extended for one year. The nation says what the government is offering would mean having to lay off 20 per cent of their force and won’t give them the money necessary to obtain and operate safe detachments.

“They want us to maintain a model that’s failing our communities in so many ways,” Fiddler said.

Nishnawbe officers have been speaking out about working conditions that have left them understaffed and overworked. They serve in isolated communities, where the crime severity ranking quadruples the provincial average. They are often alone and without backup. Round-the-clock shifts are common and weeks can go by without a real day off.

Read More: Third-world conditions taking high toll on First Nations police force

The circumstances have taken their toll, with two officers committing suicide in the last two years.

“There’s been very little supports for those officers, we’re seeing high rates of PTSD,” Fiddler said. “We know that on any given day with our police service probably 18 to 19 per cent of our officers are on leave and a good majority of that is because of stress.”

Officers are also becoming physically ill due to the substandard housing they are given. Some detachments are so dilapidated that prisoners have died in custody as a result.

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Global National’s Jennifer Tryon gets an inside look at a jail cell in Northern Ontario.

Read more: Decrepit homes, detachments on-reserve threatening Ont. police officers

Despite the circumstances they work in, the men and women who wear the uniform are torn over the possibility the force may pull out.

They’ve given up a lot for the force, marriages, sobriety, mental health, and vacations for the job. After all that, they would rather see the force fixed than fold.

“I’m too deep. There’s no point to stop now,” said Sgt. Brian Wesley, a 15-year veteran with the force.

Despite losing a friend and fellow officer to stress-related suicide, Wesley wants to stick it out to the end.

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“I’m proud to wear this uniform. This is my police service and I’m not going to give up on it,” he said.

Even if there is no new funding, Nishnawbe Aski Police Chief Robert Herman said the government should bring the force under the Police Services Act, which sets standards for all other police in the province.

The standards would force the provincial government to ensure the force had proper staffing, support, housing and detachments, according to Herman.

“I know that we can start to create an atmosphere where the officers feel that they are getting the infrastructure and they are getting the support that they need in order to do their job,” he said.

The federal government has committed to $612.4 million in funding over five years to renew agreements under the First Nations Policing Program. The money is meant to ensure continuity of policing services by extending current agreements.

“We gave them that five-year funding so that we can ensure that we can get the First Nations policing issue right in First Nations communities,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said. “We are continuing to work with the provinces in respect of the various laws they are responsible for enforcing.”

When asked about why Nishnawbe says it isn’t seeing that money trickle down, newly-minted Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said it’s his aim to ensure the funds will get results.

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“I trust that these stakeholders who are concerned will be able, with Public Works and officials, to work out the details, but my understanding is the resources will be there to give the protection that is required.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents many of the communities policed by the force, said the problem should be difficult to solve.

“We’re not asking for the moon here, just simple standards for policing and our communities would be a lot safer,” Angus said.

But if nothing changes, the Nishnawbe Police will pull out and leave the OPP to fill the gaps.

OPP Superintendent Fern Labelle said his force is making contingency plans right now.

“It would mean we would have to tax our members that much more for sending them up North in these communities to provide these policing services,” Labelle said, adding he is confident a new agreement will be negotiated.

Attawapiskat Deputy Chief Gerald Mattana said he would welcome the OPP, rather than see any other NAPS officer try to take their life.

“I see the problem. They go home to rest, but the work comes with them,” he said.

But Const. Lynda Jack has questions about how her hometown would react.

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“Even if our deputy chief or the chief of police says okay bring in the OPP. They have to look at the (communities) also,” she said.

Her police chief, Herman, said the government made the right decision to establish a First Nations police force, but now it has to follow through and fund it properly for it to survive.

“If it isn’t properly funded and these issues aren’t addressed then it will implode at some point, which is very unfortunate,” said Herman.

Global National’s Jennifer Tryon tours a half-constructed detachment in Peawanuck, Ont. 

BY THE NUMBERS: THE NISHNAWBE ASKI POLICE SERVICE

Average salary: NAPS officers make $77,702 as 1st class constable. OPP officers at the same level make $83,483, plus up to $30,000 in incentive pay for remote postings like Moosonee, Ont.

Turnover rate: Between 30 or 40 per cent of NAPS officers have made it more than five years. The percentage jumps to 64 per cent in the general police population, according to a Carleton University study.

Leave: Twenty per cent of NAPS’ 140 officers are off on medical, including stress, leave at any given time.

Suicide rate: The rate has been 1 in 140 over the past two years, compared to a rate of 12 in 100,000 for the OPP.

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