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Police chiefs presiding over First Nations police forces in Ontario have launched a human-rights complaint alleging that the federal government is placing reserves in crisis by failing to deliver adequate funding.

The claim, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, was filed last week at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) by police chiefs at nine First Nations police forces in Ontario. It also has the support of a group representing 22 First Nations police forces in Quebec. Altogether, the groups in both provinces make up the vast majority of self-administered Indigenous police forces in Canada.

The police chiefs in the claim allege that Ottawa has allowed “chronic underfunding and under-resourcing of the safety of Indigenous communities,” which they say is discriminatory because it contributes to high crime in communities that were promised equitable levels of safety to communities outside reserves.

The claim says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have not followed through on public pledges to bring in legislation to improve security by enshrining First Nations policing programs into law as an essential service, which could lead to greater levels of funding.

“Despite these commitments made by the leader of this country, the complainants now find themselves in a manufactured public safety crisis,” reads the 32-page filing to the CHRT. In the complaint, the police chiefs say that inflexible federal civil servants are crafting deals through “negotiation tactics aimed at forcing First Nations to sign unfair, discriminatory funding agreements.”

The complaint seeks damages of $40,000 per reserve resident as well as orders directing Ottawa officials to negotiate deals in better faith.

The police chiefs’ claim echoes a similar case over alleged underfunding of the Indigenous child-welfare system. A CHRT ruling in 2016 led to a $40-billion compensation plan announced five years later. That complaint also sought $40,000 for each affected person.

Last year, the CHRT ruled that government underfunding of the Mashteuiatsh Police Service in Pekuakamiulnuatsh First Nation in Quebec was discriminatory.

The new complaint amounts to an indictment of the federally run First Nations and Inuit Policing Program (FNIPP), a 30-year-old funding formula created to put more police on Canada’s reserves by splitting costs with provinces.

The federal government now pays about $200-million each year into the program, which has created nearly 40 Indigenous police forces. But police chiefs leading most of these organizations support the new rights complaint. The federal Department of Public Safety did not immediately reply to e-mailed questions about the legal action.

The police chiefs said in interviews that frustrations have been building for years because funding is discretionary and never guaranteed by government. They argue the program’s short-term deal-making processes also means that Indigenous police forces may find themselves without any money at all if bargaining for a new deal breaks down.

“We have a federal government with this First Nations and Inuit Policing Program that essentially allows the contract to expire without any mechanisms to continue the funding – that’s unconscionable,” Police Chief Kai Liu, who runs the Treaty Three Police Service across a sprawling part of northwestern Ontario, said in an interview.

Police Chief Liu, who is also president of the Indigenous Police Chiefs of Ontario, is the lead complainant in the CHRT claim. He said his own police force is one of three in Ontario whose funding agreements expired at the end of the fiscal year this past weekend without any arrangements assuring future funding being put in place. Negotiations with the federal government are continuing for a new deal.

Federal civil servants, he said, have told him that government funds cannot be used to pay for lawyers who act for Indigenous communities and policing services in these negotiations. The money also comes with restrictions that it cannot be used to create police squads such as tactical units or canine teams.

He and other forces are demanding change. Such positions “make no logical sense when it comes to policing,” said Chief Liu. He said, the lack of a deal in his jurisdiction risks demoralizing overworked officers who are already struggling to respond to emergency calls in a timely manner.

While police response times are at issue across rural Canada, First Nations can face much higher crime rates than other communities. Last September, a man killed 11 people and wounded 18 others in a mass stabbing centred on the James Smith Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan. That violent rampage drew national attention and raised questions about why nearest police were posted at a detachment 45 kilometres away.

The CHRT complaint points out that Mr. Trudeau promised new policing measures when he visited the James Smith in the aftermath of the rampage. “Prime Minister Trudeau announced a renewed commitment to ensuring First Nations benefit from the same standard of policing available to non-Indigenous communities,” the complaint says.

In 2019, the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls urged the federal government to replace the FNIPP with legislation that would “immediately and dramatically transform Indigenous policing.” Later that year, Mr. Trudeau wrote a mandate letter directing his cabinet ministers to develop that law but federal officials last month told The Globe they cannot give any timelines.

The police chiefs at several First Nations forces say they cannot wait for a bill. “It’s like saying the cheque is in the mail,” said Chief Shawn Dulude of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service.

He leads the First Nations police chiefs’ organization in Quebec and said the 22 forces intend to intervene at the human-rights tribunal in support of the Ontario complaint.

“I’m afraid that we’re going to see a third mandate go by and what they promised us will not have materialized,” he said, referring to Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government.

Last month, a Globe investigation into First Nations policing in Saskatchewan revealed how the FNIPP is not reaching residents of many reserves in that province. Citing The Globe’s reporting, the new rights complaint says this is just one example of a program that has gone off track.

Julian Falconer, the lawyer acting on behalf of the First Nations police chiefs in Ontario, says the FNIPP was created with the stated goal of ensuring that residents of reserves are as safe as Canadians living outside of them.

But federal officials have stopped using this language, he said, and that’s significant. “We call it the phantom policy. It’s concealed from public view.”

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