Why don’t more Indigenous communities have locally-administered police service?

Click to play video: 'Indigenous police services face barriers over funding structures'
Indigenous police services face barriers over funding structures
WATCH: After the deadly mass stabbings in Saskatchewan, questions are being raised over how Indigenous communities are policed. Heather Yourex-West visited the Tsuut'ina Nation in Alberta to see how its police force operates, how it can be a model for other Indigenous communities, and what's a barrier to more of them having their own police department – Oct 17, 2022

Inspector Clint Healy and Acting Sargeant Tim Daley are quick to say they feel they’re a part of the Tsuut’ina First Nation community.  Neither police officer is a member of the first nation.

Daley is non-Indigenous and Healy is from nearby Siksika First Nation.  As members of the Tsuut’ina Nation Police Service, however, Healy and Daley have worked in the community, south of Calgary, for years.

“We’re at all the community events.  We’re  going to the funerals, helping with the funerals. We’re engaging the schools,” said Healy as he takes a Global National crew for a tour of the reserve.

“I think that’s the benefit of having your own community police service,” Daley adds. “We’re all dedicated to being here and we’ve been here a long time. We know the community members and the community members know us.”

The Tsuut’ina Nation Police Service has been part of the community since 2004. Seventy-five per cent of its staff and about 50 per cent of its officers are Indigenous. First Nations culture also features heavily in how police work is done.

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“When we have a new officer come in, we have one of our elders as part of the swearing-in ceremony,” Tsuut’ina Nation Police Service chief, Keith Blake explains. “That elder is mentoring that police officer and that police officer can go to the elder (to discuss) any knowledge that they need.  It builds that initial bond immediately and it also holds our officers accountable to the community.”

It’s a model that works for this community, but across the country, indigenous-administered and community-based policing is actually quite rare.  There are only 36 police services of this kind in Canada and very few of them are in the west.

“Thirty are located in either Quebec or Ontario and there are only six self-administered (police services) in the west,” says Blake. “So Manitoba has one, Saskatchewan has one. We here in Alberta have 3 and in B.C., they have one.”

That means most Indigenous communities across western Canada rely on the RCMP.

Saskatchewan First Nation communities call for Indigenous Police Services

When violence erupted over the Labour Day weekend on the James Smith Cree Nation, RCMP officers had to be dispatched from the community of Melfort, Saskatchewan, 45 km away. It took about 30 minutes for the first officers to arrive on scene.

Days after 11 people were killed in the stabbing rampage on the Cree Nation and the nearby community of Weldon, Sask., local chiefs called for a change in how local police work is done.

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“We ask that we have our own tribal policing,” James Smith Cree Nation chief Wally Burns said during a press conference on September 8th.

The communities of James Smith Cree Nation aren’t the only ones making this request. A month after the mass killings, a second Saskatchewan First Nation sounded an alarm.  On Oct. 5, the Buffalo River Dene Nation re-declared a state of emergency over community safety.

“The gangs and the drugs in my community have come to a point where my community is living in fear,”  Buffalo River Dene chief Norma Catarat said during a press conference hosted by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FISN).

“Policing needs to be an essential service on every first nation, not only in the region but in this country,” FSIN vice-chief Heather Bear said on that day.

First Nation policing is not currently an essential service

According to chief Keith Blake, there is nobody on the Tsuut’ina First Nation that believes local policing is an essential service, but officially the police service is not classified that way.

“It falls under the First Nation and Inuit policing program, which is a very restrictive funding model, very difficult. It’s inequitable for funding,” said Blake. It means Indigenous police services, like Tsuut’ina are not able to form specialty units like forensics or major crimes, which leaves the service reliant on partner agencies like the RCMP.

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“Year-to-year the funding isn’t secured. It’s not sustainable,” said Blake. “We’re not asking for any more than other police services get. Certainly we don’t want to receive less. We also want to see legislative restrictions removed that other non-indigenous police services don’t face.”

READ MORE: Feds aim to table First Nations policing this fall after Saskatchewan stabbings

The federal government has said it is aiming to introduce a bill as soon as this fall that will establish community policing as an essential service for Indigenous communities.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters in September he is “eager” to table the legislation, but added conversations with First Nations are ongoing to ensure they have a voice and the bill addresses their needs.

“The truth of the matter is it can’t come fast enough,” he said outside the House of Commons. “We have to make sure we get this work right. It’s important work, and it has to be anchored in a relationship with Indigenous communities that is rooted in trust.”

Chief Blake says he believes the legislation is overdue.

“It’s not as easy to be successful but I do think having legislation that supports us in equity and removes discriminatory restrictions will go a long way to have communities look for the model they want to see in their community  and I think that’s important.”

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