NAN Legal to act as bridge between public and police
In light of what it calls a growing mistrust of Thunder Bay police amongst First Nations people, NAN Legal Services has stepped up as an intermediary between NAN residents living in the city and the Thunder Bay police.
Two weeks ago NAN Legal started a public education campaign aimed at educating First Nations youth on their rights when dealing with police. The organization is also offering to help First Nation victims and witnesses get their statements heard by the appropriate authorities, whether police, human rights tribunals or other outlets.
The move comes as a number of complaints have been made by First Nations people against the Thunder Bay police, including an ongoing investigation of a youth being dropped off by police on the outskirts of the city and made to walk back in frigid temperatures. There have also been numerous reports of incidents of racism and assaults against First Nations people by non-natives in Thunder Bay over the past month, including the brutal sexual assault of a First Nations woman on Dec. 27 that is still under investigation.
“The saying is where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” said Celina Reitberger, NAN Legal CEO. “When there are this many indications of things not being right, my feeling is that its getting worse. I think there’s been a backlash because of Idle No More, and people are reacting.
“We can’t just put it down to perception,” she added. “Somebody has to take the bull by the horns and say we have a problem and we’ve got to figure out how to deal with it.”
Reitberger gave presentations to Dennis Franklin Cromarty (DFC) students two weeks ago and Matawa students last week to go over the rights of individuals when dealing with police. The efforts are part of a legal education strategy that the organization is targeting to First Nations youth in Thunder Bay, a group that Reitberger said seem to be the most vulnerable.
She is also advising youth to call her if they have any concerns with police conduct, or need assistance with making statements or complaints to police.
“It is terribly important that incidents get reported,” Reitberger said. “If people are afraid and they will not come forward to point out who is doing whatever, then these people are allowed to have a free reign.”
The mistrust of police amongst First Nations youth was brought to the public’s attention last week when a 19-year-old man went on CBC radio in Thunder Bay to share his claims of witnessing an abduction of a First Nations woman in the city in late December. The young man said he was too afraid to go to police with the account, and so kept the information to himself for nearly a month before going to the media.
Thunder Bay Police Chief JP Levesque said it is “unfortunate” that people are feeling that they cannot come to police to report incidents.
He said NAN Legal’s involvement will be a help for the police.
“I’m in support of anything that helps us move forward, and I see this as another outlet to help us deal with victims of crime,” Levesque said.
Levesque also encouraged victims or witnesses of crime to report the incidents, either directly to police or through agencies such as NAN Legal.
“We can’t investigate what we don’t hear about,” Levesque said, when asked if there has been an increase in the number of crimes against First Nations people over the past month. “I’m not saying those things are not happening, as far as the drive-by assaults, throwing material at people and so on. But there has not been a huge influx reported to us.”
Reitberger noted that there are a number of organizations in Thunder Bay focused on crime prevention, including the Aboriginal Liaison Advisory Committee and the Urban Aboriginal Strategy among others. But she pointed out that in many cases the police have been disconnected from those organizations, and better relationships are needed going forward.
However, the collective will to deal with the problems exists, she said.
“People are genuinely concerned and they want to do something,” Reitberger said. “Now we need to get it together. Everybody has to get in the same room and come up with a plan. Let’s use all these great people and all this energy and implement the plan – but first we need a plan.”
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