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In Whitehorse, colonialism and crime have damaged the people of Kwanlin Dun’s relationships with the RCMP and one another. Now, a pilot project is trying to do policing differently — and Indigenous people around the world are taking notice

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Tyler O’Brien, Elias Park, Jesse Ryder and Michael Carlisle are safety officers for Kwanlin Dun, an urban First Nation in Whitehorse, the Yukon capital.Photography by Crystal Schick/The Globe and Mail

On a marble tabletop in Kwanlin Dun’s community safety office, Tyler O’Brien is chopping up roadkill deer. Dressed in all black and wearing a Kevlar vest with his wolf clan crest on the front, Mr. O’Brien, 20, is one of four community safety officers tasked with watching over members of this urban First Nation in Whitehorse, Yukon. But this isn’t your usual police force.

Sometimes, the officers are breaking up fist fights and intervening in domestic assaults, and other times, they’re stoking elders’ wood stoves and doling out chunks of fresh deer meat – a shared delicacy that brings residents together. Their work is part of a one-of-a-kind program that could become a model for other First Nations across the country because of how its transforming policing in Indigenous communities.

Many of Kwanlin Dun’s 1,000-plus citizens live in McIntyre, a small subdivision that is just five minutes from downtown Whitehorse yet feels, in many ways, like another world. Growing up, Mr. O’Brien remembers it as “wild – not a good place – with people fighting outside.” Deaths were common too: Four people were killed in the small community between 2014 and 2017, a number that’s well above the national rate of two out of every 100,000. “There was a lot of fear," Kwanlin Dun Chief Doris Bill says. "Women were sleeping with baseball bats beside their beds.”

Meanwhile, it took the local RCMP up to two hours to respond to calls in some cases, according to residents. Even though two RCMP officers are stationed in the community, they’re often called to emergencies in other parts of Whitehorse, which means police sometimes arrived long after a crisis had passed or an altercation could be de-escalated. And sometimes residents were afraid to call police at all. Stories of officers treating Indigenous citizens with little to no respect have fuelled widespread mistrust in the community. In 2008, for example, Raymond Silverfox was not given medical help, despite vomiting 26 times during the 13 hours he was held in a Whitehorse cell. He died shortly after. “Our people have a long history with the RCMP, and it’s not necessarily a good one,” Ms. Bill says.

Mr. O’Brien was in high school when the tipping point came. His close friend Brandy Vittrekwa was killed. The 17-year-old from Kwanlin Dun was beaten and left to die on a snowy McIntyre trail in 2014. Meetings sparked by the death called for a citizen’s watch, and in the spring of 2016, Kwanlin Dun forged its own community policing model. The $1.4-million, three-year pilot, created by the community and funded by the Yukon government, saw the four safety officers – who took to the streets by spring, 2017 – trained in everything from conflict resolution, intergenerational trauma and mental-health issues to critical incident stress management and bylaw interpretation.

There are still two RCMP officers stationed in McIntyre, but the safety officers respond to many calls that formerly would have been directed to the force, including domestic disturbances and public intoxication, with one critical twist. They don’t carry guns or lay charges – both because they can’t and they don’t want to. The distinction has earned them trust and respect in the community, as well as national and international attention. Already, Innu from Labrador and Maori from New Zealand have travelled to Kwanlin Dun to see the program in action. And while some communities do have their own Indigenous police forces, Kwanlin Dun’s unarmed team makes them unique in Canada.

The model is being studied at a time when, despite efforts to improve, police services across the country are still failing Indigenous communities, a new federally commissioned report says. The Council of Canadian Academies found many of these communities face higher crime rates than elsewhere in the country and colonial policing models are not meeting their safety and security needs. The report recommends community-initiated policing models based on trust that build relationships between youth, elders, community members and other service providers.

These findings come as no surprise to Ms. Bill, who is tasked with caring for a community struggling with alcohol, drugs and the effects of colonialism. “When a traumatic incident occurs, the RCMP lays charges, but doesn’t provide support,” she says. “There was a gap, and we filled it.”

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Above, the officers gather for a pre-shift meeting at their headquarters. Below, Jesse Ryder and Elias Park patrol on foot in the McIntyre subdivision of Whitehorse.

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On a recent afternoon in McIntrye, Kwanlin Dun’s officers are standing beside the community’s now melted outdoor rink, where they often play hockey with local kids. Wood smoke rises from faded vinyl bungalows, surrounded by yards full of boats, dented trucks and muddy ATVs. Kids in hoodies skid past on bikes that are too small, and a woman stops on the dusty road and sets down two bulging bags of groceries. Elias Park walks over. Dressed in black, with high boots, tattoos, a duty belt and his bulky Kevlar vest with the yellow letters CSO – community safety officer – embroidered on the back, he looks a lot like a cop. Mr. Park picks up the groceries and the pair wander up the road to the woman’s home, talking. To outsiders, the task may seem like an unusual – if not mundane – one for an officer. But Mr. Park sees helping residents with errands such as this as an important part of his job, one that puts an emphasis on building trust and relationships.

Mr. Park and his colleagues have picked up intoxicated teens stumbling through 40-below nights, finding them safe places to go. They’ve attended overdoses, administering Naloxone, interceded in incidents of domestic violence and consistently check on people struggling with addictions. They also drive kids to hockey, have helped write résumés, change light bulbs, chase bears out of the community and pick up hitchhikers, such as the 90-year-old elder they took on a spontaneous Christmas lights tour last winter.

Cruising around in vehicles splashed with a logo borrowed from the Detroit police – only it features Kwanlin Dun’s potlatch house instead of the Detroit city skyline – the safety officers often patrol alone. Two officers are on duty daily, starting staggered shifts around lunchtime that usually run into the wee hours. This leaves little room for sick days or time off, something the First Nation is hoping to remedy with more officers, when funding allows.

The officers see themselves as role models, changing the relationship the community has with authority. When an incident occurs, residents can choose to call the officers or the RCMP – today they often choose the CSOs, and depending on the seriousness of the situation, the CSOs may then call the RCMP.

If they’re dealing with drunk drivers, assaults or any other issue that requires RCMP support, when police arrive, the safety officers often stay, waiting for a grandparent to come care for a child whose parent was just arrested – instead of sending that child off with a stranger from social services – or standing witness for Kwanlin Dun members who’ve had bad experiences with police. “They often stop incidents from escalating,” Ms. Bill says. “It’s a calming influence, knowing that they’re there. Community safety and healing go hand in hand.”

The officers are part of an interagency working group created by Ms. Bill that has brought together organizations that frequently work in silos, including the RCMP, Whitehorse bylaw enforcement and the Yukon government’s Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods unit (SCAN). When safety officers discover a drug house, they team up with SCAN to get the occupants evicted, and they co-operate with RCMP investigations. Though more often, they’re likely to intercede on behalf of Kwanlin Dun citizens, such as the time bylaw was called for a dog complaint, and safety officers explained that the man had just lost a family member and it wasn’t a good time.

Kwanlin Dun’s officers are community advocates first, a distinction not lost on other partners in the program. “It’s important people see that police and community safety officers are not one and the same,” says Kwanlin Dun-based RCMP Constable Michelle Faulkner. “They’ve garnered so much trust, we don’t want to jeopardize that by having it appear they’re in our back pocket. They’re independent.”

Though Constable Faulkner tries to talk with people and be approachable, her job often doesn’t allow enough time to truly build bridges. “As police we deal with emergencies and then are gone,” she says. “It’s reactive.”

The safety officers have a buffer that police don’t, Constable Faulkner says, and have a personal touch that only comes from being part of this community. “And the community believes in them,” she says. They’ve filled a need the community didn’t even realize it had, she adds.

That buffer is exactly why the First Nation’s justice director, Gary Rusnak, hopes Kwanlin Dun’s safety officer program never moves toward enforcement. The idea has been discussed, but it would completely change the officers’ roles. “That’s when people will close their doors and drop their blinds,” he says. “There is no way to hide how First Nations have been treated, and the wrongdoing that has been done by agencies that have authority.”

Kwanlin Dun’s safety officer program doesn’t really fit any one mandate. It’s health, public safety, social services, education, community services, crime prevention, justice – everything, making it very difficult to fund, Mr. Rusnak says. He just secured $800,000 in bilateral public safety funding, federally and territorially, to keep it running for another two years. “The bang for your buck is incredible,” he says. “We’re doing a lot of work the RCMP would be doing and saving them a lot of dollars.”

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Elias Park, shown driving around McIntyre, says residents weren't sure what to contact the officers about at first. 'Now, we have lots of support from the community,' he says. 'One person yells, and we get five or six calls.'

Back at their office, Kwanlin Dun’s safety officers are flipping through previous night’s incident reports. If someone had a heart attack, they’re briefed. When social services is involved in child-related issues, they’re told. And if the elder down the road needs help fixing his fridge, they’re on it. Officer Jesse Ryder pulls out a pale blue Moleskine notebook full of scrawled entries and starts inputting stats into a computer. The paperwork is not his favourite part of the job, but it’s how the First Nation is hoping to objectively track the program’s success.

Though there are no hard stats yet, Kwanlin Dun and its partners anecdotally laud the program’s success. Mr. Rusnak’s noticed a dramatic change in RCMP response times. “Now, when our safety officers call, the reaction time is exceptional,” he says, because they know they’re needed. There has also been a noticeable shift in the community. The officers’ presence acts as a deterrent to some activities that were common in the past. Impaired driving, break and entries, drug trafficking and public intoxication have decreased, he says. And children are playing outside again. People feel safe.

“There is no doubt they’re effective,” agrees Whitehorse RCMP detachment commander Inspector Keith MacKinnon, who speaks with Mr. Rusnak often and sits on Ms. Bill’s interagency working group. “Visibility is a deterrent, and their presence prevents crime from happening,” he says. “They’re an important support for us.”

Women in Kwanlin Dun feel safer too. Part of that comes down to knowing the CSOs are patrolling the streets – and can intervene in a critical situation sooner than the RCMP would have been able to. Mr. Park and Mr. Ryder were driving down a McIntrye street last year, for example, when they saw a man carrying a young girl. “We knew him well enough to know he didn’t know her,” Mr. Ryder says. They got out and started talking to him, and quickly realized the girl was so intoxicated she couldn’t walk, speak or even see. “We were able to intercede and get her help,” Mr. Park says. “It could have been much worse.”

Ms. Bill, who sits on Yukon’s Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls advisory committee, continues to field requests to help establish similar programs across the country. “People are recognizing how much it can help in serious situations, especially where women are feeling unsafe,” she says.

Like many others involved with the program, Ms. Bill stresses the importance of creating relationships both inside the community and outside of it.

“And every community is different,” she says. “It has to be built by the community. They have to want it.”

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Jesse Ryder and Elias Park on patrol in McIntyre.

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