New federal report suggests First Nations eager to build their own police forces

·4 min read
The File Hills Police Service is a First Nations police service in Saskatchewan. The chair of the service's board of commissioners says under the existing funding model, First Nations police forces can't plan ahead, or adequately retain and recruit staff. (File Hills First Nations Police Service - image credit)
The File Hills Police Service is a First Nations police service in Saskatchewan. The chair of the service's board of commissioners says under the existing funding model, First Nations police forces can't plan ahead, or adequately retain and recruit staff. (File Hills First Nations Police Service - image credit)

A new federal government report suggests groups across the country want to make First Nations policing an essential service.

The report from the Public Safety department, released Wednesday morning, details highlights from consultations the federal government did with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities this spring regarding possible legislation to support establishing more First Nations police services.

Some advocates say that would be a step in the right direction in terms of solidifying Indigenous self-governance and self-determination.

The federal government's report says participants in its consulations made it clear "that there was a sense of urgency to move forward on this legislation and an eagerness to see progress being made."

In its 2021 budget, the federal Liberal government promised more than $850 million over a five-year period to support police and safety services in Indigenous communities.

That includes more than $43 million for co-developing legislation that would recognize First Nations policing as an essential service. The report released Wednesday is part of a consultation process launched earlier this year to help inform that process.

Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters Tuesday that tabling the legislation is a top priority for him.

"Realistically, I'd like to see it tabled this fall. And we'll work again very closely with our partners in the Indigenous space right across the country," he said.

Current model inadequate

There have been calls for First Nations police services in the wake of the stabbings in the James Smith Cree Nation area and the nearby village of Weldon earlier this month, which left 10 people dead and 18 wounded, not counting the two men accused.

Daniel Bellegarde, who is chair of the board of commissioners for the File Hills First Nations Police Service — the only First Nations police service that currently exists in Saskatchewan —  said the stabbings are a tragedy, and hopes they can be a catalyst for change.

He said under the existing model, First Nations police forces can't plan ahead, or adequately retain and recruit staff. Sometimes, funding is only guaranteed for a year.

"The idea of legislation is that it gives you a basis for pay-based funding that is predictable, that is equitable, and that is stable. And that is what we have been lacking in the past," said Bellegarde, who also chairs the First Nations Police Governance Council — an organization founded by the Canadian Association of Police Governance to focus on building capacity for First Nations police services.

First Nations police services in Canada get financial support through the federal First Nations and Inuit Policing Program, created in 1991 to provide funding for First Nations policing services.

But even the report released Wednesday acknowledges First Nations "have faced significant challenges and financial obstacles in being able to deliver adequate and culturally appropriate policing services in part due to the limitations" of that program.

The report says one of the things that came across in consultations is that "not enough funding is available in the overall program budget to adequately support each First Nations police service to do their work and to meet the expectations of the communities served."

Bellegarde said the program "was never intended to support a full-fledged police operation with all the equipment and all the programs and all the services."

Making First Nations policing an essential service through legislation would change federal and possibly provincial laws.

Bellegarde said because First Nations police services are rooted in the community, they are culturally competent and accountable to residents — all positive things, he said.

Bellegarde also said having control of policing, and eventually the wider justice system, is essential for self-governance. Without control of those things, self-governance will not become a reality, he said.

"I think it has to be understood that First Nations are not a lawless people and we had our own methods of social control for thousands of years in the past. It served us well. The imposition of colonial structures, colonial institutions, I think, has reached a point of no return."

Lennard Busch, executive director of the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association, agrees that legislation would help. His national association works to advocate for and support First Nations police services.

There are just over 30 First Nations police forces in the entire country, Busch said, including only six west of Ontario.

He said a lot needs to happen for First Nations police services to succeed, and significant issues remain, such as the remoteness of some communities and deciding which communities will be hubs for police services.

"We want to support and promote larger police services or perhaps even a regionalized model, so that they have the critical mass to make up any kind of impact that a resource shortage would have," he said in an interview.

"Housing in communities for police officers is another issue when there's significant issues just for the people that live there."

But Busch said he is cautiously optimistic about this latest development.

He added that identifying good leaders early will help police boards appoint police chiefs, if the federal legislation is passed.