When Chief Derek Nepinak first heard of the mass stabbing tragedy in James Smith Cree Nation over the Labour Day long weekend, he saw parallels in the security measures in his own First Nation.
The death of Lydia Gloria Burns, who was slain while responding to a crisis call in James Smith Cree Nation, made him reevaluate whether the crisis team in Minegoziibe Anishinabe, also known as Pine Creek, should intervene in all crises.
“We do have a crisis intervention committee made up of local volunteers,” Nepinak said.
“They’re going into volatile situations at times without the adequate resources to, you know, not only to intervene in the issue, but to even protect … themselves from potential harm.”
There is no police force in Minegoziibe Anishinabe, which is 440 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. The closest RCMP detachment is 50 km away in Winnipegosis.
After the James Smith Cree Nation killings, the gap in safety and security measures for First Nations is top of mind. Manitoba First Nations in remote areas are often left with little to no help when it comes to crisis intervention.
Many communities rely on the provincially run First Nations Safety Officer Program (FNSOP), which was created to cover the gap created when the national band constable program was cancelled in 2015.
“Community safety officers are essentially what I call glorified security guard[s] … they’re mandated to observe and report and in emergency situations call in the RCMP,” Nepinak said.
Nepinak says his community of 2,500 people only receives enough funding to hire a part-time safety officer, which is not sufficient for the size of Minegoziibe Anishinabe.
In a statement from Manitoba Justice, the province says the First Nations Safety Officer program is the largest of its kind in Canada, and safety officers have “the powers and protections of peace officers authorized under the Police Service Act and can enforce provincial statutes, band bylaws and certain Criminal Code authority.”
For Nepinak, the safety officer program is insufficient to ensure his community is safe. He says his community needs a slew of resources beyond policing, including mental health and addictions counselling.
“[Safety officers] don’t have the resources nor the level of training that the previous constable program had,” he said.
Created in the 1960s, the national Band Constable Program was a federally funded program and, according to Nepinak, constables received extensive training from the RCMP.
According to Public Safety Canada, the program was cancelled because “it was not safely or effectively meeting the policing needs of First Nation communities in Manitoba, Alberta and New Brunswick.”
First Nation-run police services
Manitoba ranks second lowest for percentage of First Nations with a police force, according to a recent report from Public Safety Canada, which ranks only New Brunswick as doing worse.
In total, 18 of the 63 reserves in the province have a First Nations-run police force.
There are 38 First Nations police services in Canada, which includes the Manitoba First Nations Police Service, that serves eight communities in the province, including Swan Lake First Nation.
“It’s not only having the police doing criminal investigations, but also … being a visible sign in our community,” said Jason Daniels, chief of Swan Lake First Nation, who says the work of the police extends beyond law enforcement.
“It’s reconciliation, it’s justice circles … so sometimes having at least, you know, a police service that has certain values and mandates, it helps with … the perception of police.”
Prior to joining the Manitoba First Nations Police Force, Swan Lake relied on the RCMP for law enforcement.
“There wasn’t very much of a presence in the community,” Daniels recalls. “But now with Manitoba First Nations Police Service we have three dedicated police members that are there on a daily basis.”
The need for culturally sensitive policing is echoed by Dan Bellegarde, chair of the File Hills Board of Police Commissioners in Saskatchewan, and chair on the First Nations Police Governance Council.
“We have unique cultures, we have unique governance systems, we have unique languages and … our people deserve to be looked after by our own people,” Bellegarde said.
“Provincial police come in and do policing in our communities, I think it is quite the opposite direction of [the] self government and self-determination that we’re going for.”
RCMP gets provincial contracts to provide services
Bellegarde says the provinces most successful at establishing First Nations-run police forces under the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program are those with provincial police services, such as Quebec and Ontario.
In Prairie provinces such as Manitoba, the province contracts out policing to the RCMP for 20-year terms, making it hard for some First Nations to break from the RCMP and launch an independent police force.
According to the province, there are an additional 10 First Nations that have RCMP contracted to provide First Nations policing services under Community Tripartite Agreements.
“It’s not as simple as, you know, signing a band council resolution as chief and council saying we want a Manitoba First Nations Police Service in our community. it really boils down to the resources that are available,”Nepinak said.
Currently, Manitoba only receives eight per cent of the total First Nations and Inuit Policing Program funding — a point not lost on Manitoba’s Department of Justice.
In July, Manitoba Justice sent a letter to the federal minister of public safety, Marco Mendicino, asking for equitable distribution of funding for Indigenous-run police forces, based on Manitoba’s on-reserve First Nations populations.
Resources few and far between
Even for communities that have a First Nations police force, resources are still lacking.
According to Daniels, Swan Lake First Nation doesn’t have a detachment simply because there isn’t enough money to build one. He says in order to detain someone, they have to drive 90 minutes.
Daniels says First Nations don’t have access to the same protective services other Canadians do, saying communities are left to figure out how to respond to crises on their own.
“We’ve always struggled with trying to access the services that other Canadians enjoy on a regular basis,” Daniels said.
CBC did reach out to the federal Ministry of Public Safety, but did not hear back by the time of publication.