New Peacekeepers on patrol in Kahnawake

With Kahnawa’kehró:non Brandy Diabo, Cougar Kirby, and Mathaüs Atonnion Mehlhorn now in uniform, the Kahnawake Peacekeepers once again have a full complement of 36 officers.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Peacekeepers chief Dwayne Zacharie. “We need to always expand, and having these new Peacekeepers joining our ranks really is a boon for us.”

With recruitment a growing challenge, according to Zacharie, it’s also a sign that community members are still drawn to the job. “Our goal is to remain one of the only First Nation police services in the country,” he said. “We work really hard at trying to recruit people that have that background.”

The new officers recently returned from Regina, where they trained at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Depot Division. They’re now engaged in six months of field training working alongside more established colleagues before they’ll be ready to hit the road on their own.

While the current funding agreement allows for 36 officers, with 100,000 cars passing through the territory every day, this is already not enough, according to the chief. “The South Shore has grown by leaps and bounds,” he said. Which means operating with even fewer officers than the agreement allows has been a challenge.

“Having more Peacekeepers, or at least being at our maximum capacity for the moment based on what the agreement says, that does help us to provide better service, to provide quicker service,” said Zacharie.

“I think they’re going to be great additions to our team and I look forward to them providing services to our community.”

Brandy Diabo

“It feels good to be home,” said Diabo. “It feels good to be back on the road – even though I’m in the passenger seat.”

Diabo comes to the Peacekeepers with more than three years experience as an officer with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police. “I wanted to bring the knowledge and the training that I had back to my community to help here and be at home with my family,” she said.

With years of experience already under her belt, her main task is to adjust to the Peacekeepers’ ways of working. But there’s one difference that might be even bigger – the familiarity that comes with working in your home community.

“These are people that you’re going to see every day. Your kids go to school together. You go to beading class together,” she said.

“I think it’ll be more beneficial working here because you have that background of people. You have that history. You know who they are already.”

It’s also something of which local officers need to be mindful, she added. “You’ve got to set the boundaries where there’s off-duty you, where you’re more friendly and whatever, but then there's work you, and these are the rules and this is how it has to get done.”

Her priority is to de-escalate situations and cultivate trust, encouraging community members to reach out when they need help.

“I think having empathy and going to every call and working with a community policing feel to it is more important in smaller communities because if the person’s having a crisis, they’re dealing with the worst day of their life right now,” she said.

When Diabo’s not on duty, she can often be seen going to the gym or shuffling her kids to sports.

“She can’t wait to get started, so I’m really pleased with her enthusiasm,” said Zacharie.

“From what I can see she’s a really personable individual. She’s really sharp.”

Cougar Kirby

Kirby was the first of the new Peacekeepers to return from Regina and begin field training in Kahnawake, so he’s already racked up five weeks on the job. “It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s really cool to see the difference between training and real life.”

The former youth worker joined the force because he felt it was a new way to contribute to the community.

“I always thought I would never, ever be a police officer, honestly. Never ever. But I would only do community policing like this,” said Kirby, because it means officers are invested in where they’re going and the people they’re serving, he said.

“What better outcome would you want than your cousin showing up to a call where it’s a crisis situation? You know we’re going to care. You know we’re going to have that passion and the heart in doing our job.”

To Kirby, it is crucial to exercise patience and build on those relationships. “I think it helps a lot because the type of policing we do, community policing, you’re not trying to raise your voice and escalate the situation unnecessarily.”

Like Diabo, however, Kirby sees enforcing boundaries as a necessary part of the job.

“Our goal is to keep the community safe, keep the people safe,” said Kirby. “I have kids in schools right down the road. I want to keep this place safe, and you’ve got to make those tough choices, unfortunately, to have that safety.”

In his off time, Kirby likes to play sports like lacrosse or go hiking or swimming. “Anything with my kids,” he said.

“Cougar’s one of those guys that has a lot of confidence,” said Zacharie. “He’s really well-spoken. He’s a great addition to our team. He’s extremely respectful. He’s a hard worker.”

Mathaüs Atonnion Mehlhorn

“I always wanted to be a Peacekeeper because I want to – the old cliche saying – help people and just do good out there. Simple as that,” said Mehlhorn, a cousin of Kirby’s.

Mehlhorn remembers his father encouraging his uncle, former Peacekeeper Jay Phillips, to try to scare him away from the job with stories of life as a police officer. But if anything, the tales had the opposite effect.

“That drove me even more,” said Mehlhorn. “I wanted to hear more, just keep it going. That’s what I wanted to do, just generally doing good.”

He has been enjoying working in real-life situations in field training after the simulations at the Depot Division.

“It’s been a great joy,” he said. “There’s been lots of learning going on. We’re not just there enjoying the ride.”

“He was one of those people that really stood out for us in the hiring process with his confidence and his willingness to learn,” said Zacharie. “He excelled in training. I’m really looking forward to him becoming a solo Peacekeeper and helping people within our territory.”

Like the other new recruits, Mehlhorn believes in the principles of community policing.

“We just have to go there with an open mind and hear what they have to say and give them that closure on the situation at hand and help them through that process as much as we possibly can,” he said.

Mehlhorn enjoys playing hockey in his offtime.

He hopes to help reduce what he perceives as a stigma in Kahnawake when it comes to policing, encouraging people to come up to him for a chat and get to know him as a person.

“We each want to try and change the narrative, prove to people that we are human, more than just a gun and a badge,” he said.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door