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Tsuut'ina Nation Police Service Chief Keith Blake (left) stands with Tsuut'ina Nation Inspector Quinn Jacques (centre) and Inspector Clint Healy (right) at Redwood Meadows on the Tsuut'ina Nation on Jan. 5.

Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

In one of the first arrangements of its kind in the country, an Indigenous police force has taken over policing of a small non-Indigenous town in Alberta – a move leaders from both communities say could become a model for both reconciliation and rural policing in the province.

The Tsuut’ina Nation Police Service, known in the Tsuut’ina language as Tosguna, took over policing in Redwood Meadows, a community 20 kilometres west of Calgary, from the RCMP in November.

The nation has described the change as a reclamation of its historic authority to police its traditional lands. The arrangement may also, according to Tosguna Police Chief Keith Blake, give the local force a chance to demonstrate how First Nations can contribute to rural policing, and how they could supplement the Alberta government’s efforts to build its own provincial police force.

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“We hope this is used as a model,” Chief Blake said. “There’s a pride that we are policing the traditional lands.”

Redwood Meadows, a townsite of 1,000 residents, sits within the boundaries of Tsuut’ina Nation, on land leased from the nation, but operates as a partially independent municipality. It shares its administration with Tsuut’ina’s council, but also has its own mayor and council.

The decision to transfer policing from the RCMP to Tosguna came as part of lease negotiations between the nation and the townsite. At the end of 2020, Redwood Meadows finalized an agreement to lease the land from Tsuut’ina for another 75 years.

“Having those discussions over the lease, the relationship grew with the nation. So we looked at what else is possible,” said Redwood Meadows Mayor Ed Perkins. “It starts with an acknowledgement that we are on traditional territory of Tsuut’ina Nation.”

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Chief Blake said the police force held discussions with Redwood Meadows’ town council, the RCMP, Tsuut’ina Nation’s leadership and the provincial government. “We all felt it would be beneficial,” he said. “This is the first time that this has been done, where a First Nations force is policing a non-Indigenous community.”

Tosguna has existed for more than 30 years. It started as a tiny operation that patrolled the nation’s borders.

In 2004, it gained full policing authority for Tsuut’ina Nation, under Section 5 of the Alberta Police Act, which governs the establishment of local police forces in the province. Tosguna now has 26 police members – 65 per cent of whom identify as Indigenous. Another 85 per cent of the force’s civilian staff identifies as Indigenous.

Tsuut’ina has a lot to oversee on its lands. The nation is involved in the construction of a ring road that forms part of a 100-kilometre east-west trade corridor around Calgary. It is also managing one of the largest First Nations development projects in North America – a business, retail and real estate development known as Taza, which spans 1,200 acres.

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“We wanted to be able to patrol and take care of the nation, our assets and our people,” said Emmet Crowchild, a Tsuut’ina Nation councillor.

Growing Tosguna was the vision of Mr. Crowchild’s cousin, Councillor Vincent Crowchild, who died in January, 2021. “To take over the policing of Redwood Meadows – it just felt right because it’s part of our community and is on our land,” Mr. Crowchild said.

Mr. Perkins said expanding Tosguna’s purview to include Redwood Meadows will allow the townsite to facilitate reconciliation with Indigenous peoples by reestablishing First Nations policing of traditional lands. “It’s about taking things beyond a land acknowledgement – it’s about deeds, not words,” he said.

In the past, policing in Indigenous communities in Canada was often imposed from the outside. Indigenous people in Canada are still disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, compared with members of other racial and ethnic groups.

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This meant Tosguna had to take a community-centred approach to policing, Chief Blake said.

“It’s about relationship building and listening,” he said. “There is an unfortunate past when it comes to First Nations policing. We have to understand the truth before we can begin reconciliation.”

Tosguna has taken on the policing of Redwood Meadows without any additional funding from other levels of government or from the Redwood Meadows council. The importance of policing the land outweighed the potential costs, Chief Blake said.

The nation hopes to receive additional provincial and federal funding in the future, which Chief Blake said would help rectify longstanding inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous police forces in Canada.

Tosguna’s existing funding agreements with the provincial and federal governments are often year-to-year, while non-Indigenous police funding agreements are typically multi-year. Chief Blake said the annual funding model makes it difficult for his police service to plan. His officers and staff are paid less and have smaller pensions than other Canadian police officers. Tosguna officers also have no union or collective bargaining power.

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Tosguna, like all members of the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program – a Public Safety Canada program that allows Indigenous communities to run their own police forces or contract out policing to provincial or federal governments – has not been designated an essential service under federal legislation, despite operating under the same regulations as other Canadian police services.

The federal government in December announced a $43.7-million plan to work with the Assembly of First Nations on legislation to recognize Indigenous policing as an essential service, which advocates believe would give First Nations police services access to increased funding.

Leaders from Redwood Meadows and Tsuut’ina Nation say they see the new policing arrangement as the next step in building a mutually respectful relationship.

“We are an example of what’s possible,” Mr. Perkins said. “The relationship we have with Tsuut’ina is very unique and progressive. I’m honoured to be a part of it.”

“Taking this on is pretty huge to us,” Mr. Crowchild said. “We take great pride in doing it. We’re very proud of Tosguna and Chief Blake. It’s very important to have this representation in the community.”

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“Reconciliation has a lot to do with it as well. We weren’t trying to prove anything, but it just makes perfect sense to have our police throughout our community and on our lands. It’s a huge opportunity to work hand in hand and try it.”

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