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Lena Anderson died in custody on the Kasabonika Lake First Nation seven years after two men burned to death in the Kashechewan police station.
Lena Anderson died in custody on the Kasabonika Lake First Nation seven years after two men burned to death in the Kashechewan police station.

Woman’s death in custody exposes indigenous policing issues Add to ...

Lena Anderson took her own life as she sat alone in the back of a police truck on the Kasabonika Lake First Nation on a cold late afternoon in February, 2013.

Five members of a coroner’s jury are now being asked to determine how she met her end – a mandatory procedure in Ontario when someone dies in police custody.

Regardless of their findings, Ms. Anderson’s case, along with the horrific deaths of two young men being held in a jail on the Kashechewan First Nation in 2006, serve as stark reminders that the right to a minimum standard of policing, and a basic level of security, do not exist everywhere in Canada. Indigenous communities with their own culturally sensitive police forces have no law to set requirements for officer training, mandatory equipment, use of force or codes of conduct.

Related: Ontario First Nations threaten to disband police service over funding issues

Related: The Trafficked: The story behind our investigation into the exploitation of indigenous women and girls

“At any given time, we have communities with no police, we have communities with one police officer working alone,” Terry Armstrong, the chief of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS), told the inquest. “If you were to ask me right now if it’s safe, it’s not safe.”

As it stands, indigenous policing is just another government program financed by Ottawa and the province of Ontario. The only way the communities of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) will get security “backed by the rule of law” is if NAPS is covered by the Ontario Police Services Act, Mr. Armstrong said.

Without the act, First Nations residents cannot demand that sufficient resources be applied to the job of keeping them safe. Detachments can be decrepit shacks – or non-existent. Police are not required to have radios or access to investigative services. There is nothing to say a lone officer should not be on call seven days a week, around the clock.

In 2014, Alvin Fiddler, then deputy chief of NAN, said he would not renew the four-year agreement with the federal government or province to operate NAPS unless the province agreed to talk about bringing the communities under the provincial legislation. So Ontario, which is responsible for setting police standards within its boundaries, quietly entered into a negotiation with NAPS and the First Nations leadership in 2014 about putting the NAN communities under the act.

Those discussions wrapped up last summer. What the province has promised behind closed doors is confidential. But “it would be just up to the government to legislate it,” Mike Metatawabin, the chair of the NAPS board, told the coroner’s inquiry.

The coroner’s jury has also been told it might prevent deaths like that of Lena Anderson.

She was in the truck where she took her own life because it was the only contained space in which the officers of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service in the remote Northern Ontario fly-in community could hold people in custody. The back seat of a Ford 150 was the jail cell for the Kasabonika First Nation.

Ms. Anderson, the 23-year-old mother of a preschool-age daughter, was a troubled young woman with a history of alcohol abuse who had made several previous suicide attempts. She was drunk on homemade liquor, and her only child had just been apprehended by a social-service worker, when she looped the drawstring of her track pants through the cage around a light in the back of the truck and then tied it around her neck to hang herself.

“She did drugs, she drank. As a mother, I could see that,” Maryann Shewaybick, Ms. Anderson’s mother, told the jury last week. But “she was also caring, loving, friendly. … It is very hard on me to lose my baby.”

Constables Jeremy Swanson and Troy Wlodarek, who were the only NAPS officers in Kasabonika, had been working for more than 24 hours straight at the time that Constable Swanson arrested Ms. Anderson during the altercation that followed the apprehension of her daughter.

The decrepit holding cells in the police detachment that was part of the Kasibonika band office were no longer in use because prisoners could escape through holes in the floor. So a directive from NAPS headquarters had directed that the facility not be used.

A new pre-fab detachment, which had been shipped to the reserve despite NAPS leaders’ concerns that it was inadequate for a northern climate, was not in use because there was no heat. The force had decided that, in the absence of other options, “officers may arrest and hold in the secure police vehicle.”

Perhaps if more officers had been available that night, or if there had been a real holding cell, “things might have turned out differently,” Constable Wlodarek told the coroner’s jury. “I can’t even put words to how Constable Swanson is dealing with it. But three years later, I am still trying to forget.”

NAPS employs 145 officers who, even after a new labour agreement this summer gave them a substantial raise, still make about 10 per cent less than Ontario Provincial Police officers for working longer hours under more dangerous and difficult conditions. The force operates on a budget of about $27-million annually and patrols an area the size of France with a homicide rate has been seven times the national average and where sexual assault occurs 10 times as often as it does in the rest of Canada.

It is estimated that it would cost $60-million to $80-million to have OPP police the region, the coroner’s jury was told.

When asked by The Globe and Mail whether indigenous police forces would be brought under the Ontario Police Services Act, a spokesman for the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services said the province is developing a new “blueprint for effective, sustainable and community-based policing throughout Ontario,” with legislation to be introduced in the spring, and sustainable First Nations policing would be part of that.

But Mr. Fiddler, who is now NAN’s Grand Chief, said the lack of a definitive time frame for action is concerning. “I have made it clear to both Ontario and Canada,” he said, “that I do not intend to sign another policing agreement that’s based on a program, especially one that has been designed to fail.”

After two young men, who were being held for public intoxication, burned to death in the Kashechewan police station in 2006, a survey was conducted of the police buildings on all of the reserves served by NAPS. Just one of the 35 was found to be compliant with health and safety standards.

A coroner’s inquest after that tragedy made many recommendations for improving safety at police detachments on reserves. They were ignored.

Those two deaths prompted NAN leaders to write resolution after resolution to demand that Ontario and the federal government pay for proper facilities and better resources for their police. Nothing happened.

Ms. Anderson’s death resulted in a public safety notice in February, 2013, from NAN sent to two federal ministers and three provincial ministers saying “on a go-forward basis, the federal and provincial governments will be responsible legally and morally for future deaths that are caused by inadequate resources.” None of the ministers responded.

A year later, the federal Auditor-General said the fact that First Nations policing does not fall under a legislated framework such as Ontario’s Police Services Act creates conditions that “present potentially serious health and safety risks to police officers, detainees and members of communities.”

A labour agreement reached this summer between NAPS, NAN and the federal and provincial governments – after Mr. Fiddler threatened to disband the police force entirely to get Ottawa and Ontario to the table – will solve some of the problems. It increases wages and will lead to the hiring of 40 additional officers by 2018.

But it does not provide full parity with other Ontario police forces, Mr. Fiddler said. And it does not require the First Nations police force to meet the standards of the Ontario Police Services Act.

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