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Pikangikum First Nation Chief Dean Owen in a screen grab from a Facebook Live address he made to his community on March 19, 2021.handout/Handout

The Ontario Provincial Police have returned to Pikangikum First Nation after they were expelled in March over sexual-assault allegations against some of their officers.

The returning OPP officers were vetted by Chief Dean Owen and councillors, a statement from the First Nation said. The officers are now required to work alongside community peacekeepers, the local security force that protected the remote community of about 3,800 residents for six weeks while the OPP were banned.

According to the statement, the OPP will also provide additional training for local auxiliary constables as part of the long-term goal of establishing a stand-alone Pikangikum police service. Chief Owen said it’s been the community’s goal to have its own force “from day one.”

It’s time to treat Pikangikum as a nation

Pikangikum First Nation expels OPP from community over sexual assault allegations, SIU investigating

Pikangikum is one of a number of First Nations in the province whose policing services are funded and administered through the Ontario First Nations Policing Agreement under the federal First Nations Policing Program.

Ten officers had been deployed to the Northern Ontario community, approximately 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, when a band council resolution effectively expelled them in March.

The province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) said two investigators have been assigned to the case, which involves two complaints alleging women were sexually assaulted by members of the OPP in Pikangikum. The SIU has not yet identified a subject or witness officers and issued a public call for witnesses in early May.

The allegations, brought forward by local civilian staff to the Chief and council in March, and the fallout – including the federal government’s withdrawal of live-in nurses stationed in the community – have only reinforced the community’s commitment to develop its peacekeeper program into its own police service, according to the statement.

“This experience has opened our eyes to several gaps in terms of policing, health care and first response services that unfortunately exist in Pikangikum, but not in municipalities of smaller populations,” Chief Owen said.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said it reduced nursing services in Pikangikum because of a significant reduction in police presence. The nursing station’s hours of operation were reduced to daytime only, and nurses were flown in and out daily.

Chief Owen said he had trouble understanding why the government prioritized the safety of the nurses over the 3,800 other members of the community, who had to rely relied on telehealth and medevacs outside regular business hours.

An ISC spokesperson said primary health practitioners returned to Pikangikum on April 28, when 12 OPP officers also returned to the community.

An OPP spokesperson said that, as part of the conditions of the OPP’s return, the Pikangikum Peacekeepers will go on calls with the OPP as long as it’s safe, adding that its officers are now wearing arm bands and ball caps with Pikangikum Police patches.

Matthew Hoppe, the CEO of the Independent First Nations Alliance, a tribal council representing five First Nations in Northwestern Ontario, including Pikangikum, said the expectation is that Ontario and Canada will continue to support the community to ensure First Nations-led programs such as the peacekeepers have the resources they need.

Chief Owen said ensuring the safety and well-being of Pikangikum’s residents has to be community-driven.

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