First Nations leaders question newly announced Sask. marshals service amidst calls for better policing

Leaders and representatives from First Nation communities and organizations in Saskatchewan gathered in Prince Albert on Friday at a joint news conference, where they called for help to address safety crises in their communities. (Tina Pelletier - image credit)
Leaders and representatives from First Nation communities and organizations in Saskatchewan gathered in Prince Albert on Friday at a joint news conference, where they called for help to address safety crises in their communities. (Tina Pelletier - image credit)

As Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan call on governments for local policing forces and resources to address safety concerns, some First Nations community organizations are raising questions about the province's newly announced marshals service.

This week, the provincial government announced the planned Saskatchewan Marshals Service — announced in last month's throne speech — will have a team of about 70 officers to support RCMP and municipal police forces, including responding to areas with high crime rates. It's expected to be operational by 2026.

Chiefs and representatives from First Nations communities and local tribal councils were at odds over the new police service, with some seeing benefits to the move and others expressing disappointment about a lack of consultation.

"My concern is that governments sit in their office, whether it's in Regina or in Ottawa, [and] they're making policies on our behalf without our input," said Clearwater Dene Nation Chief Teddy Clarke said at a Friday news conference in Prince Albert, where northern leaders called for help to address safety crises in their communities.

"They need to understand that we live a different life in a different part of the world here … that's what they've got to base their policies on," Clarke said at the joint news conference, organized by the Meadow Lake Tribal Council, the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan and the Prince Albert Grand Council.

He called on governments to bring leaders from northern and southern Saskatchewan to the table and allow for their input.

Meadow Lake Tribal Council Vice-Chief Richard Derocher echoed a point made by Prince Albert Grand Council Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte, saying the organizations don't have enough information about the marshals service.

"We haven't discussed with our MLAs yet to see what that entails and how it's going to affect our First Nation communities in northwest Saskatchewan," Derocher said.

Albert Couillard/Radio-Canada
Albert Couillard/Radio-Canada

He said he'd hold off on voicing his opinion on the new service, but did say none of the information he has seen so far specifically mentions policing in First Nation communities.

The Prince Albert Grand Council recently signed a letter of intent with the provincial government to explore self-policing and community safety.

Questions around benefits to First Nations

Lennard Busch, the executive director of the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association, said he's also heard from multiple leaders and representatives who said they weren't consulted about the marshals service.

He agreed that policing needs to be bolstered, and said the services promised by the province would be helpful, but doesn't understand why a whole new agency is being introduced.

"It's just kind of a surprise to everybody as to the formation of this new marshals service," Busch told CBC.

That surprise has led to questions like why the money couldn't be used to bolster existing services, such as the RCMP.

"We are working closely with the province and the federal [government] on the proposed essential service legislation and we do have a good working relationship, I believe, with them, so this comes as a bit of a surprise that this had not really come up," said Busch.

He's also curious about whether the marshals service will include Indigenous members, which he says is important.

James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns said the new service could reduce response times.

That's a critical factor in the community following the mass stabbing in September that left 10 people dead and 18 wounded — not counting the two men accused — in the James Smith Cree Nation area and the nearby village of Weldon. People have criticized the police response time.

"I think dealing with all 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, it might be a good thing or working towards self-administration and tribal policing," Burns said.

Safety at the forefront

When asked about the introduction of the marshals service, Prince Albert Grand Council Vice-Chief Joseph Tsannie said there aren't enough RCMP officers in Canada, and those currently on the job are burnt out.

He anticipates RCMP could offload some work on serious crimes to the marshals service to free up resources.

Tsannie also speculated police forces may face recruitment challenges because of how officers have been publicly perceived recently, including movements to defund police services.

"Anything that would improve the communities' safety — not just within rural communities, within our northern First Nations communities as well — we welcome," he said.

The First Nations leaders who met on Friday said there are issues of violence, gang activity and drug trafficking in the north, and situations haven't improved in recent years.

Drugs are a pervasive issue, exacerbated by poor housing and rising cost of living, they said, calling for more RCMP support and better access to treatment centres.

Norma Catarat of Buffalo River Dene Nation said information she has indicates that despite a higher crime rate in Saskatchewan's north, there are fewer RCMP resources in those regions.

"Does that make sense? Not to me," she said.

At a news conference in early October where Buffalo River Dene Nation announced it was reinstating a state of emergency in response to drugs and violence in the community, Catarat recounted an assault against an elder in the community and made a plea for government help.

The nation has since contracted a security service to patrol the community 24 hours a day.

On Friday, Catarat made an immediate call for cameras to watch over elders' residences and also asked for detox centres and transitional housing in the long term.

CBC has requested comment from the provincial ministry of corrections, policing and public safety, which said it would provide a response.