Policing is a self government essential
The tragic death of a young woman in Kasabonika Lake First Nation has reignited debate over the state of policing in Nishnawbe Aski Nation communities, once again calling into question the idea of First Nations policing in Canada.
The fact that a woman died while being detained in the back of a police cruiser, since the community lacked an operational holding cell, has rightfully raised concerns and anger about the adequacy of the police services for First Nations people living on reserve. Frankly, if a prisoner in Toronto or Thunder Bay died while being detained in the back of a police cruiser because there was nowhere else to hold him or her, there would be a national outcry. So far in this case the outcry has largely been within the First Nations community and Aboriginal media. But the situation raises important national questions that need to be addressed.
These concerns are not new. Think back to the calls for action that came from the inquest into the deaths of Ricardo Wesley and Jamie Goodwin of Kashechewan in 2006. The discussion was essentially the same. First Nations police services are underfunded, and they face barriers to services that provincial or municipal police forces would never stand for.
Out of the Kashechewan inquest came 86 recommendations. Some have been dealt with; many more have not. Of note, the big picture items highlighted by the coroner – including the fact that First Nation police forces are considered programs instead of legislated like provincial and municipal police forces – has been virtually ignored.
Now another inquest into another tragic death is in the works. The big picture recommendations determined during the Kashechewan inquest will be rehashed and republished. Whether they will be acted on is another story entirely.
But the high profile cases and the inquests into First Nations policing are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems with services and the debate over policing in communities.
It has only been a few months since Eabametoong threatened to replace Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS) with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) in the community. In the end Eabametoong stuck with NAPS, but the discussion was just the latest case of a First Nations community considering going back to the provincial police force.
Who can blame a community for exploring that option? By NAPS’ own admission, the force struggles to fill all the positions needed in communities. NAPS officers are generally working alone, while the OPP requires that two officers attend every call. NAPS is prevented from buying or constructing buildings, and so have to rely on modular units, while the OPP faces no such restriction. Those are just a few examples. The differences between the forces are vast.
The president of the Association of the Ontario Chiefs of Police, Stephen Tanner, summed up those differences in a newspaper article last week. Tanner was expressing his frustration with cuts to a federal program that paid for 11 NAPS officers. The cuts, Tanner said, may result in NAPS pulling out of one or two communities, forcing the OPP to move in. And that would mean a huge increase in costs since, as Tanner explained, for every $1 million NAPS spends on policing, the OPP would spend $2 to $3 million to do the same job.
Tanner’s comments show just how unfair the system is. The fact that NAPS spends way less than the OPP policing the same community is not due to efficiency within NAPS. It is, plain and simple, due to the fact that NAPS has less stringent requirements in terms of officers, buildings, and other operational items.
Policing is a thankless job. When things go right, no one notices the police. But when things go wrong the police are often the first to be blamed. Given the challenges that NAPS faces, it is no surprise that communities debate whether to return to the OPP.
But the issue of policing in First Nations communities has to be considered with a broad lens. The kneejerk reaction of getting rid of NAPS when something bad happens may end up hurting the Nishnawbe Aski Nation self-government push in the long run. It has been argued that the federal and provincial governments set NAPS up to fail. Perhaps, given that, the question should be asked: why do governments want First Nations policing to fail?
The leaders who helped establish NAPS in the early 1990s understood that having a First Nations police force serving the people, instead of a provincial or federal police force, is crucial for self-government. Granted, the vision has not yet come to fruition. NAPS still faces too many challenges in terms of funding, staffing and governance. The force desperately needs to become a legislated police service, just like the provincial and municipal police, in order to not only get the proper funding that the people of NAN deserve, but also in order to have the accountability and independent oversights other police forces across the country are subject to.
But those challenges will not be resolved without backing from the communities, and the realization that a strong NAPS benefits all NAN members. It is only by strengthening the individual pieces of self-government that true nation building can succeed.
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