A massive manhunt for a lone fugitive by hundreds of police officers continued late Monday, a day after a wave of knife violence devastated a remote Indigenous reserve in Saskatchewan and once again put the spotlight on rural policing.
This weekend’s violence, centred on the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, resulted in the deaths of 10 people and injuries to nearly 20 others, making it one the deadliest mass killings in Canadian history.
Mounties in Saskatchewan are being praised for quickly issuing cellphone alerts to the public about the threat as it developed, but the police force has said little about its operational response to emergency calls that started coming in before dawn on Sunday morning.
The sprawling geography of Saskatchewan poses challenges for rural Mounties, whose areas of enforcement often stretch across a series of small villages and remote First Nations.
“The majority of Canadians live in fairly large metropolises. You dial 911 and an ambulance will be there in 10 minutes; a police officer will be there in three minutes,” says Brian Sauvé, head of the union for the RCMP’s 20,000 rank and file officers.
He said he had no insights into the killings at the James Smith Cree Nation, but he pointed out that relatively small groups of RCMP officers often cover vast territory. “We can’t be everywhere and sometimes a response is 15, 20, 30 minutes,” said Mr. Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation.
Police had initially been searching for two fugitives, whom they described as brothers. On Monday, they were still searching for one suspect in Regina, but the body of one of the brothers was discovered in the First Nation.
RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore told reporters that the manhunt involved hundreds of police officers across Saskatchewan. The Mounties are being assisted by municipal police forces, she said, adding authorities are deploying all investigative tools they can muster in the search.
The RCMP has issued a statement saying its officers on the scene Sunday found “multiple victims in multiple locations,” including one victim outside of the First Nation in Weldon, Sask.
According to the municipality of nearby Melfort’s website, the local RCMP detachment has fewer than 20 officers at a given time covering a 51,000-square-kilometre area with 15,000 residents. “Seven constables are responsible for the City of Melfort, and one constable is responsible for First Nations policing at the James Smith First Nations Reserve,” the city says.
The Canadian Press
Despite the staffing and vast territory, the Melfort detachment’s outreach to police and the public is winning praise from former Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, who once served as the federal public safety minister in charge of the Mounties.
“Good to see the high level of co-ordination and combined effort between the RCMP’s ‘F’ Division and other police services across Saskatchewan,” Mr. Goodale said on Twitter.
Now acting as Canada’s chief diplomat in Britain, he added, “Public updates from responsible officers is helpful.”
The Saskatchewan RCMP has said it received its first 911 calls around 5:40 a.m. CT on Sunday morning. About 90 minutes later, the Melfort RCMP detachment issued the first in a series of cellphone alerts about dangerous persons to the local community. “Do not leave a secure location. DO NOT APPROACH suspicious persons. Do not pick up hitch hikers,” the warning said.
Several other warnings went out before noon, including ones sent to the entire province, and the RCMP also used social media to amplify the warnings featuring photos of the suspects and descriptions of their vehicle, which police have not yet located.
The Saskatchewan RCMP’s response stands in contrast to the Nova Scotia Mounties’ reaction to a 2020 mass shooting that left 22 people dead. A public inquiry is exploring the police response to the massacre, including why 11th-hour warnings about a gunman were circulated to a rural community only through Twitter. Several Mounties have testified they knew nothing about the province’s emergency alerting system when the massacre was happening.
In Saskatchewan, provincial officials and the RCMP have been working together for years to fine-tune their capabilities to send out emergency warnings. Last year, the police force told The Globe and Mail it has 13 employees specifically trained to independently issue emergency alerts.
Police staffing issues remain a crucial concern in remote First Nations. The 2019 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls recommended that Ottawa overhaul its First Nations policing programs so that it can be “replaced with a new legislative and funding framework” that would upgrade police staffing, training and equipment to levels on par with what exists in Canada’s cities.
Late last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino to “develop a legislative framework for Indigenous policing.” A bill is anticipated this fall.
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