The federal Conservative government is pressing First Nations to absolve Ottawa of its responsibility for policing on reserves, even as native leaders say people’s lives are in jeopardy because their forces are so poorly funded and equipped.
The funding and the liabilities of the on-reserve police program have always been the shared responsibility of the federal government, the provinces and the First Nations.
But chiefs say the new tactic would leave First Nations on the hook for the fallout of police systems in which underpaid officers work alone in life-threatening situations, often without required equipment such as radios, and where decrepit police stations lack the most basic of amenities.
Over the past several months, in advance of an Auditor-General’s report on the First Nations Policing Program that was released this week, the government sent funding agreements to those First Nations that have their own police forces. Documents related to the agreements and correspondence between the First Nations and federal authorities were obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The agreements, which were drawn without the input of the First Nations, include a clause relieving Canada of responsibility for policing in the native communities. They also say the First Nations are obligated to meet “the standards expected from a police service” or the funding agreements could be terminated.
But First Nations leaders have been saying for many years that the quality of police services on reserves is significantly inferior to that in the rest of Canada .
Despite their misgivings, some native leaders have signed the agreements to meet their police payrolls. First Nations that refused saw their federal funding cut off at the end of March.
The discussion around policing follows RCMP revelations last week that police had compiled nearly 1,200 cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada over the past 30 years – a number that is three to four times higher than their average representation in the country.
“All our families, women, young girls, deserve to live in a safe home in a safe community. They need to feel safe wherever they are,” Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), an organization representing 49 First Nation communities in Northern Ontario, told a news conference Wednesday. Because of the state of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, Mr. Fiddler said, “we cannot guarantee their safety.”
That is why, he said, NAN’s Grand Chief Harvey Yesno wrote a public safety notice to the chief coroner for Ontario in February, 2013, saying his people were in jeopardy because of chronic underfunding to local law enforcement.
That notice, which was also sent to former public safety minister Vic Toews, pointed to the case of a 24-year-old woman on the Kasabonika Reserve who died by suicide in the back of a police truck where she was being detained because the community police detachment had no heat.
The notice was resent this year to Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney. But Mr. Fiddler says the minister has never responded or agreed to talk with the chiefs about policing on reserves.
The minister’s office did not respond to questions on Wednesday – the day after the federal Auditor-General’s report said his department does not have reasonable assurance that policing facilities in First Nations communities are adequate.
A lawyer who works for two of the indigenous forces says the government may be trying to end its funding of the First Nations Policing Program.
“If it’s true that the federal government has no legal responsibility for aboriginal policing, it follows that, down the road, all funding could be withdrawn by the federal government without recourse,” said Julian Falconer, who represents the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service and the Anishinabek Police Service.
At his recommendation, neither of the forces have signed the agreements presented to them by the government.
Federal negotiator Shammi Sandhu suggested in an e-mail in January that NAN’s unwillingness to co-operate would “likely jeopardize” the construction of a police station on the Eabamatopong First Nation, a community of about 1,300 that had been waiting for a detachment for more than 10 years.
Mr. Falconer said the federal government backed down on that threat under pressure from Ontario.