Auditor-General Michael Ferguson’s findings on the federal First Nations Policing Program read like a catalogue of dysfunction. Visiting 16 remote reserves, auditors discovered native police officers living in mouldy housing, cells too small to accommodate prisoners and a lack of basic police equipment, like functioning radios. The tattered state of affairs is hardly confined to the police service – many native reserves in this country are in disrepair – but that’s beside the point.
Because when Mr. Ferguson delves into the reasons why native policing is so much worse than policing in the rest of the country, he finds no evidence of mismanagement or incompetence on the part of First Nations. Most of the blame falls squarely on Public Safety, the federal agency tasked with overseeing the $1.7-billion funnelled into the program since it was created in 1991.
It’s no small sum of money, and the auditor finds it’s being disbursed haphazardly to hundreds of communities with little or no input from First Nations. That’s bad enough. What’s worse is the separate revelation gleaned from documents obtained by The Globe, which suggest Stephen Harper’s Conservative government wants to be absolved of its legal liability for the underfunded First Nations police services, issuing ultimatums to First Nations that they meet “the standards expected from a police service” or forfeit their funding.
So, to sum up: Policing on First Nations reserves is a disaster – one partly of Public Safety’s own making – that places some of Canada’s most vulnerable communities in even greater jeopardy. Yet rather than working to fix the problem, with greater transparency and predictable funding, Ottawa is trying to offload its responsibility. It’s difficult to disagree with First Nations leaders who see this as some twisted version of blaming the victim.
All of this is especially appalling at a time when the RCMP has compiled a list of nearly 1,200 cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada over the past 30 years – a figure that is roughly four times higher than their representation in the country’s population. When the First Nations Policing Program was launched more than two decades ago, it was meant to address a community-safety crisis. It’s abundantly clear that crisis still exists. First Nations Policing was never given a fighting chance to fix it.
First Nations communities are among Canada’s most vulnerable and susceptible to crime. This sad fact alone should make them a priority. First Nations police deserve more funding and better equipment, to bring them on par with their provincial counterparts and enable them to protect their communities. This is not just the responsibility of First Nations. It’s Ottawa’s as well.
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