Aboriginal elders team up with officers to build bridges between police and homeless

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Aboriginal elders team up with officers to build bridges between police and homeless

Const. Michael Jeffrey isn't afraid to admit it — Toronto Police's previous approach to dealing with homeless Indigenous people in the city simply wasn't working. 

"This is a different approach to what we've been doing in the past, giving people tickets," he said. "We thought we're going to try to change that relationship between police and the Aboriginal community and we're getting a great response back." 

As part of a unique outreach program, dubbed the Walkabout, officers from 51 Division walk with Indigenous elders to have conversations with Aboriginal homeless people and help them gain access to shelters, food, and other supportive services.

Jeffrey, who is an Aboriginal liaison officer at 51 Division, said the approach helps each side understand the other better. 

Cree elder Andrew Wesley says his work to close the gap between the two groups includes having meaningful conversations with not just the city's homeless Indigenous population but also the police officers they encounter in their daily lives.

"I try and educate them on what the officers are all about, some of the work they do, that they have their own family they go back to in the evening, and also educate the officers about where those people are coming from, our history, colonization, residential schools ... those kinds of things."

Wesley said it is easier for elders than it is for police officers to gain the trust of those Aboriginal people in need and that he hopes to "create a better relationship of understanding between the two."

The project is a collaboration between Toronto Police Service, the Downtown Yonge BIA and the city's Indigenous community. 

Already, Wesley says, he can see better relationships develop between police officers and homeless Aboriginal people. 

Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA, hopes other BIAs also take up the challenge. 

"It takes someone within the Aboriginal community to gain traction on these issues," he said. "When you establish these relationships they work in a collaborative way and they listen to each other. "