Many Indigenous communities lack policing services that meet their safety and security needs despite long-standing efforts to remedy the shortcomings, a federally commissioned report says.
Instead, they’re stuck with a colonial policing model that overlooks Indigenous cultural traditions and fails to create the bonds of trust needed for successful police work, the report concludes.
Public Safety Canada asked the Council of Canadian Academies to assess the role of police services in First Nations and Inuit communities with the aim of identifying promising approaches. The non-profit council assembled a panel of 11 experts from disciplines including law, criminology, mental health and policing, and headed by Kimberly Murray, the former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Their report notes that crime rates in First Nations communities often exceed those elsewhere in Canada, and Indigenous people are overrepresented in Canada’s courts and jails. It also stresses that Indigenous people are also more likely to be victims of crime and face health and social inequalities that hamper policing efforts where they live.
The report comes as the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women prepares to release its own findings in early June, including insights into the often fraught relationship between police and Indigenous people.
The federal First Nations Policing Program is intended to help communities either administer their own culturally attuned police services or help them work with forces such as the RCMP or provincial police to design and run police services keyed to their particular needs. The federal government is spending an average of about $160 million a year on it, counting several years of increases starting in 2017.
The council found the program has been a source of frustration for many Indigenous communities, partly due to inadequate resources and support. Almost one-third of eligible First Nations and Inuit communities do not have program agreements, instead relying entirely on whatever the Mounties or provincial police are able to provide, the report says.
In addition, more than half of First Nations and two-thirds of Metis people live in urban areas. Municipal and regional police services might adopt culturally appropriate practices, but systemic racism and discrimination against Indigenous people “remains a serious issue” that has contributed to a lack of trust, the report says.
In both Indigenous and non-Indigenous settings, the most promising ways to promote safety and well-being involve building relationships among police, other service providers and community members – effectively addressing people’s problems “before they become policing problems,” the report says.
It underscores examples that seem to be working. For instance:
- The Tsuu’tina Nation Police Service near Calgary has a dedicated response unit that works with community members to identify their needs and concerns with the aim of addressing them through programs and partnerships;
- In Prince Albert, Sask., representatives from a range of agencies, including police and First Nations, meet twice weekly to discuss community members who need help.
Addressing safety through social connections recognizes the importance of healthy relationships and knowledge-sharing, which have always been valued in Indigenous communities, the council says.
“A relationship-based approach is important regardless of whether the community in question is a small reserve community or a dispersed urban Indigenous population.”
However, police must have the training needed to understand and engage with the communities they serve, the report emphasizes.
“This includes the opportunity to learn about the community’s history, laws, local organizations, cultural and spiritual practices, and unique challenges, as well as the realities of working in a specific geographic region or setting.”