Quebec's 22 Indigenous police forces have filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, accusing the federal government of chronic underfunding that has left them unable to properly serve their communities.
The announcement was made at the Kahnawà:ke Peacekeepers station, located in the Kanien'kéha:ka community south of Montreal. Chief peacekeeper Dwayne Zacharie says funding has been a struggle for a "very long time."
"With the number of officers that we have, we don't have funding that properly resources us so that we can provide the services that our community needs," says Zacharie.
"That means that we always have to be creative about the way we manage our budget, so that way, when our community needs certain types of services, we're able to provide."
Dwayne Zacharie is the chief peacekeeper of the Kahnawá:ke Peacekeepers. (Jessica Deer/CBC)
Unique policing needs
He says Kahnawà:ke faces unique policing needs, similar to many other communities.
"We have 100,000 cars a day that go through our territory, right? We have major highways. We have a bridge. We have the St. Lawrence Seaway. We're in the flight path for [Pierre-Elliot] Trudeau International Airport. We have CP rail tracks coming through our territory. All of these are provincial and federal infrastructures that we didn't ask for, but they're here in our territory and guess who's responsible for managing all of that?" questioned Zacharie.
"We don't have the luxury of utilizing other police services … So that means the responsibility is on our shoulders to do that."
He says this can come at a cost to peacekeepers and their mental health, since they are from the community.
"They live here and they work here and they grew up here so they're always on duty. They're never off. Even on the days when they're scheduled to be off," said Zacharie.
"They don't get to be anonymous when they're off-shift."
Lack of funding, 'unacceptable' says AFN-Quebec chief
Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL), says the situation is "very sad."
He says having the courts intervene might be one of the only options for Indigenous policing services.
"Why do we have to go to those extents to make it a point that our policing services are underfunded and not funded at par with other existing services? That's totally unacceptable. It's, in my view, a discriminatory practice," said Picard.
He says the limited resources among Indigenous peacekeeping and policing services has "been documented so many times over in the last 30 years."
Chief Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, pictured in September 2021, says the underfunding of Indigenous policing services is "totally unacceptable." (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Some officers forced to share expired bullet-proof vests
Shawn Dulude, the chief of police in the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne, which straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state, says the lack of funding prevents Indigenous police from providing basic services on par with other forces across the country. He added that on his territory, officers are sharing expired bullet-proof vests.
"The funding has always been inadequate and it sets us up to fail," said Dulude.
The human rights complaint follows a similar move by First Nations Police forces in Ontario.
There are currently 36 Indigenous police services across the country, mainly in Ontario and Quebec, with five in Western Canada.
In March 2023, the Indigenous Police Chiefs of Ontario filed a human rights complaint, alleging systemic discrimination by Canada's "deliberate and wilful underfunding and under-resourcing" of communities through the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program (FNIPP).
The program, launched in 1991, created an expense-sharing model for First Nations policing in the country, under which Ottawa would pay 52 per cent of the costs and the provinces or territories 48 per cent.
Discussions with the federal government over funding take place in the presence of lawyers and aren't negotiations at all, he added.
"Basically it's a take-it-or-leave-it type of attitude and we want this to cease," said Dulude. "We want to be recognized as essential services and we want to be funded accordingly."
On salaries, Indigenous officers in Quebec are paid about 25 to 30 per cent less than their counterparts in the provincial police or municipal forces for the same work, Dulude said.
"We have less money in our coffers to be able to provide adequate services, so in the long run, who suffers? It's our communities. It's the neighbouring communities. It's anybody that transits or comes to our communities," said Dulude.
Public Safety Canada did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
However, in 2022, it completed an evaluation of the FNIPP acknowledging that the finite amount of the program's budget "has led to underfunding of FNIPP-funded policing agreements. As a result, the scope and nature of policing services that are available to participating communities are limited and face ongoing operational challenges."
First step in long process
Benoît Amyot, a lawyer representing the First Nations police, said the case must first be accepted by the commission before it can be referred to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which hears discrimination cases.
Amyot noted that a landmark $23-billion settlement against the federal government for more than 300,000 First Nations children and their families over chronic underfunding of on-reserve child-welfare services — was approved last week and stems from the tribunal.
Quebec's Court of Appeal overturned a lower court ruling in December 2022, finding that the provincial and federal governments owed the First Nation police force serving the community of Mashteuiatsh, in the Lac-St-Jean region, about $1.6 million to make up for years of underfunding.
Ottawa has said it won't appeal, but the Quebec government has appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn that decision.
Dulude is hopeful that with First Nations police forces in Quebec and Ontario filing complaints, the federal government will eventually recognize and reform its funding practices.
"We don't want to be confronting the government, we're offering them our hand, we want this to be resolved and we don't want it to drag on," Dulude said.
"But right now, everything that we've experienced over the last year or so showed us that we have to go this route now."