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Chief Ghislain Picard, left, of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, speaks to reporters as Chief Linda Debassige, of the M’Chigeeng First Nation, looks on during a press conference at the Assembly of First Nations annual general assembly in Halifax, on July 12.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The Assembly of First Nations is demanding that Ottawa start giving Indigenous communities more of a say in how the federal government structures funding for police forces on reserves in the wake of a court ruling that castigated the government for its inflexibility.

At the group’s annual meeting in Halifax on Wednesday, Quebec-Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard criticized the dynamics of Ottawa’s First Nations and Inuit Policing Program after the Federal Court ruling, which he says affirms that the program can leave Indigenous people feeling like second-class citizens.

“Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must cease endangering the safety of First Nations people across the country,” Mr. Picard said.

“I don’t think policing and public safety and law and order in our communities is of lesser value than where we see elsewhere,” Mr. Picard said.

The First Nations and Inuit Policing Program was created in the 1990s to give cash-strapped reserves access to better policing by having federal and provincial governments split costs. However, the terms and conditions around these funding deals are imposed by the federal government.

This spring, three First Nations police forces that patrol 45 Ontario First Nations said they would no longer sign deals on Ottawa’s terms. The three forces went without funding for three months after their agreements expired. During the latter phases of the standoff, police chiefs for the forces appeared on Parliament Hill to say they were contemplating layoffs and shutdowns as their communities declared states of emergency.

On June 30, Federal Court Justice Denis Gascon said the dispute should never have deteriorated to that point. He ordered the federal government to release funds to the three police forces through a 12-month injunction that he ordered in response to an emergency legal motion for the police forces.

“What is just and equitable in this case is to ensure that the self-administered Indigenous police services remain in place,” Justice Gascon said.

Ottawa argues in legal document it is not responsible for paying for First Nations policing

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino rebuked by First Nations police chiefs over funding

The judge blamed Public Safety Canada and its minister, Mr. Mendicino, for being too rigidly attached to their own bureaucratic norms. Justice Gascon said that the federal department “did not consistently follow its duty to act honorably and in the spirit of reconciliation as it kept insisting on the impossibility to negotiate.”

The ruling further said that Mr. Mendicino should have been much more flexible, and that a minister and his department should not claim that they are powerless to alter terms and conditions of funding deals when “the reality is they can unilaterally modify them at the stroke of the pen as they see fit.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Mendicino said in a statement that he will not appeal the ruling and that his department will be more prepared to negotiate future police funding deals “in the spirit of reconciliation.”

“We will continue to work hard to expand First Nations Policing,” Mr. Mendicino said.

One long-standing issue with the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program is that it has no underpinning legislation, which means that all the federal money for the function comes from a capped, discretionary budget line. Several First Nations have been shut out of the program entirely because of a lack of available government funds.

M’Chigeeng First Nation Chief Linda Debassige says that when communities are barred entry to the program, they are forced to rely upon provincial police services or the RCMP – organizations that do not operate with the values of Indigenous communities.

“We’ve always been of the opinion that we know what to do. We know how to do it. We have the capacity, the intelligence and the means to do it with the support by the Crown in relation to their fiduciary obligation,” said Ms. Debassige.

The federal government has pledged to introduce legislation that would declare First Nations policing to be an essential service in Canada. It has committed to developing the legislation in partnership with the AFN, but the organization recently said no progress is being made.

“To date, no draft legislation framework exists, nor has the scope of the legislation been agreed to by the parties,” reads a statement from acting AFN chief executive Amber Potts.

In an affidavit filed in court this spring, she said that Public Safety Canada lacks a “mandate to recognize First Nations’ rights” and that this gap “has hindered the parties’ ability to come to agreement on the objectives and guiding principles.”

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