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After last year’s stabbings at James Smith Cree Nation, reserves are rethinking how to keep themselves safe – and how to navigate a maze of jurisdictions that Ottawa plans to redesign

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Nathan Roberts is a constable at the File Hills First Nations Police Service, the only group of its kind in Saskatchewan to use a program known as FNIPP to finance an Indigenous-administered police force.Photography by Heywood Yu/The Globe and Mail

The first 911 call, after the attacks began at James Smith Cree Nation, was made at 5:40 a.m. It was early September last year, and a man with a long criminal record was going from home to home on the small reserve in Northern Saskatchewan armed with knives, killing as he went.

The community, like the vast majority of First Nations west of Ontario, is policed by federally managed RCMP officers, who work under contract with the provincial government. The nearest police detachment is in the town of Melfort, roughly a 40-minute drive away. That is almost exactly how long it took officers to arrive.

When they did, they found nine people dead and 18 injured, in one of Canada’s deadliest mass killings. Two more dead would soon be discovered, including the killer’s brother.

Darryl Burns woke that morning to news that his sister, 62-year-old Gloria Burns, was among the fatalities.

“People would come by and report, ‘This person is deceased. These people are deceased. These people are deceased,’” Mr. Burns, who lives on the reserve, said in an interview. Each report was more evidence that the killer had been completely unimpeded. “He’s been here, he’s been there, he’s been everywhere.”

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Darryl Burns is the brother of one of the people killed last year at James Smith Cree Nation.

Mr. Burns said people at James Smith have always waited between 30 and 60 minutes for the Mounties to respond to any emergency call. Reducing those delays could prevent a future tragedy, but that would require hiring more police officers, which would require more funding. And in Canada, any search for money for policing in Indigenous communities leads directly into a thicket of jurisdictional complications.

Politicians, Supreme Court justices and human-rights commissions have long grappled with this problem, but the intergovernmental ambiguities have continued piling up. First Nations have never surrendered their territories, but usually lack funding to run their own police forces. The federal government has agreed to provide services to them, but it is the provinces who are responsible for local law enforcement. So whose job is it, then, to provide policing on reserves?

The state of policing in Saskatchewan, where 17 per cent of the population is Indigenous, is a pressing concern. That is particularly true among northern reserves like James Smith, where violent crime is escalating but police ranks have plateaued. Indigenous people in Saskatchewan are 13 times more likely to be homicide victims than non-Indigenous people, according to a 2022 report from Statistics Canada.

Now, a dozen small and scattered First Nations in northern Saskatchewan, including James Smith, are talking about joining forces so they can reinvent policing in their communities. They want to use government funding to hire their own officers and station them directly on reserves.

But doing so will mean dealing with a funding regime that is in flux, as the federal government prepares new legislation intended to resolve some of the jurisdictional issues with the country’s financial model for on-reserve policing. That model’s failings are especially evident in Saskatchewan, where RCMP officials say money for law enforcement at First Nations often doesn’t reach the Indigenous communities it is intended to benefit.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits the grave of one of the James Smith victims on Nov. 28, 2022, just over two months after the main suspect died in a high-speed chase with the Mounties.Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan’s present-day troubles are nothing new. Over the course of the RCMP’s 150-year history, the force’s relationship with Indigenous communities has always been fraught. For decades, the Mounties seized Indigenous children to enforce government policies that required them to attend residential schools, and a series of public inquiries held since the 1970s have highlighted the shortcomings of RCMP policing on reserves.

Federal and provincial governments cycled through various new policing models until 1991, when Public Safety Canada announced an initiative known as the First Nations Policing Policy, which was later renamed the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program, or FNIPP. The program has provided several billion dollars in federal and provincial government funding toward the policing of reserves over the past 30 years.

But the FNIPP has never been the law. It is merely a cost-sharing formula – one that can be a catalyst for better policing if federal, provincial and reserve governments can come to terms on enhanced policing accords.

When they do come to terms, the federal government pays 52 per cent of the expenses. The province of jurisdiction picks up the other 48 per cent. And the Inuit community or First Nation – or nations, if they apply jointly – does not have to pay anything, but gets to choose a policing model.

Hundreds of arrangements have been struck over the past 30 years. They have mostly resulted in two kinds of policing models.

The first type of FNIPP funding model is known as a “community tripartite agreement,” or CTA. Under this arrangement, a reserve agrees to apply the money from the 52-48 grant formula toward placing more Mounties on its lands.

A second type of model is a self-administered police force, funded by the program and run by an Indigenous community. Reserves that choose this path no longer rely on the RCMP or any other external police force. Instead, they build their own.

Scores of First Nations, including the James Smith Cree Nation, are now gravitating toward this model, but for now membership is restricted to an exclusive club. Fewer than 40 such police forces exist in Canada, and most of them are clustered in Ontario and Quebec, where the RCMP are not responsible for local law enforcement.

There is also a third FNIPP model: no model at all. Many Indigenous communities have simply not accessed the program, or tried to access it and been denied.

James Smith is one of them. Years before the killings, in 2005, the nation sought a solution to its policing conundrum. It passed a band council resolution calling on Ottawa to include it in the FNIPP.

James Smith hoped to use the program to place RCMP officers on its reserve. But nothing came of the proposal. Asked about this recently, Public Safety Canada was unable to say why the nation’s application hadn’t succeeded. Department spokesperson Tim Warmington would say only that the request had arrived during a cash crunch, “when there was no additional funding to expand the FNIPP to new communities.”

This has left the reserve among the 40 per cent of Canada’s nearly 700 First Nations and Inuit communities that receive no FNIPP funding.

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Mounties arrest a man in La Ronge, Sask., that they pursued through town this past December before puncturing his tires with a spike belt. He crashed into a police vehicle.

Demands from reserves for more police funding have always outpaced the allotted yearly money supply, which is set in Ottawa. The federal side of the FNIPP was budgeted during the early 1990s as a $30-million-a-year program. But it is now $200-million a year.

Last year, Public Safety Canada released a comprehensive review of the FNIPP. It found that between 2004 and 2018, rates of violent crime in communities that are part of the program had increased by 31.9 per cent, while rates in the rest of the country decreased by 15.5 per cent.

The report said “chronic underfunding” of the FNIPP has caused many of the program’s police officers to adopt a reactive stance, where they respond mainly to crisis calls and no longer work on building bridges within Indigenous communities.

In 2019, the Indigenous-led National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls urged all governments to “immediately and dramatically transform” policing. “The federal government’s First Nations policing program must be replaced with a new legislative and funding framework,” the inquiry’s report says.

In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told his ministers in a mandate letter that they needed to expand existing programs and also introduce legislation enshrining First Nations policing. Since then, Ottawa has poured tens of millions of dollars into shoring up existing arrangements and planning the new legal framework, but the legislation has has not yet materialized.

“While it is too early to say when legislation will be tabled, we continue to work closely with co-development partners at the Assembly of First Nations and individual First Nations to craft this important bill,” Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, said in a statement.

The coming new measures could unlock hundreds of millions of dollars in annual government funding and start up scores of self-administered Indigenous police forces across all of Canada. But this outcome is far off.

An uneven policing patchwork remains in place among First Nations today.

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The village of Lebret, near Saskachewan's Qu'Appelle Valley, adjoins the Wa-pii-moos-toosis 83A reserve of the Star Blanket Cree Nation. Lebret is served by the File Hills police service.

The CTA policing model, in which federal and provincial money is used to fund RCMP officers for reserves, is the most common one among FNIPP communities in Saskatchewan. Of the 74 First Nations in the province, 45 of them have CTAs in place. Statistics reviewed by The Globe and Mail show that no other province has embraced these deals to the extent Saskatchewan has.

In principle, a CTA is supposed to support community policing. RCMP officers funded by the program are supposed to spend time on reserves and get to know the people who live there, so they don’t come to be seen as outsiders who never leave their patrol cars unless there is a crisis.

But there is a major problem with these accords.

According to senior Saskatchewan RCMP officials, the program funds have been almost entirely redirected away from the promised community outreach. Instead, designated CTA officers are doing standard policing, with no particular focus on reserves. And that’s despite a federal policy that explicitly forbids FNIPP money from being used in this way.

RCMP commanders say they have been left with no other choice. “To take six, eight – whatever it is – members off the shift here to do strictly the CTA role would cripple the detachment,” said RCMP Superintendent Murray Chamberlin, the force’s commander for the northern region of Saskatchewan. He spoke to The Globe in the RCMP’s La Ronge detachment.

Mounties at La Ronge struggle to respond to reports of crimes from across a northern community that is evenly split between reserve and non-reserve lands.

There were three homicides in the La Ronge area last year, compared to one in 2021. Police statistics say assault and firearms offences have increased by about 10 per cent in the area year over year. In June, La Ronge Mounties were shot at while out on patrol. The bullets missed them, and the suspect now faces two charges of attempted murder.

Burnout and churn are issues for police forces in northern jurisdictions across Canada. The Saskatchewan RCMP says La Ronge is fully staffed, but it would not speak about the detachment’s level of leaves of absence.

The town’s mayor, Joe Hordyski, said there should be a total of 28 Mounties working out of the detachment. But leaves and vacancies can pile up, and have at times left it with something more like 17. “To me, that’s not acceptable,” he said.

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Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore of the RCMP speaks in Regina last October.Michael Bell/The Canadian Press

In an interview in Regina, Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore, the top RCMP official in Saskatchewan, said she also believes the province’s Indigenous communities are not getting what they were promised under the FNIPP. “What happened in the late 1990s, early 2000s is that [CTA] positions were provided, they were designated to work solely on First Nations communities to do more of that proactive style policing – so not just reacting to calls,” she said.

There are now a total of 138 RCMP CTA positions in Saskatchewan – a number that amounts to about 10 per cent of the force’s positions in the province. But this may have more to do with provincial accounting than any actual community policing on reserve.

Years ago, Assistant Commissioner Blackmore explained, the province pared back scores of standard RCMP policing positions. And so the RCMP started filling staffing gaps with CTA positions, which are cheaper for the province to maintain because they are 52-per-cent funded by the federal government. Those officers began spending more time off-reserve. “Unfortunately someone recognized there could be cost savings there,” Assistant Commissioner Blackmore said.

She said this is not the case in Alberta. “If you look at Alberta and how the CTA positions are managed there, they do proactive policing.”

Last year, weeks before the massacre at James Smith, Assistant Commissioner Blackmore’s office asked the provincial government to reset the RCMP’s contract. The budgetary request urged the province to hire 300 more Mounties by 2030 and assign nearly half of them to focus on First Nations.

But the province didn’t approve the plan. Instead, in late October it announced it would be starting up a new police force known as the Saskatchewan Marshals Service. Its mandate is still being worked out, but it does not yet appear to have any defined role in First Nations policing.

Asked about the way Saskatchewan administers the CTA program, the province’s Ministry of Justice did not answer directly. “We are collaborating with our First Nations partners to determine their policing and law enforcement needs,” spokesperson Ariane Whiting said. She added that the province plans to increase police funding, including for “the creation of Indigenous policing authorities.”

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Constable Roberts goes on patrol for the File Hills police. 'Being a police officer here, and working with Indigenous people – it has helped me reconnect with my culture,' says Constable Roberts, who comes from the Carry the Kettle First Nation.

The situation is very different among First Nations that have chosen to use FNIPP funding to create self-administered police forces.

The only Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan that have adopted this law-enforcement model are a cluster of five First Nations located just east of Regina. They are policed by a homegrown service: the File Hills First Nations Police Service.

Nathan Roberts, a constable at File Hills, was at the wheel of his patrol car during a recent shift. Badlands, lakes and fields slid past his windshield. It was bumpy terrain for a Prairie province, but the work was going smoothly enough. There were no crime calls.

The rookie officer said that for him policing is not just a job. Working at Saskatchewan’s only all-Indigenous force feels like a homecoming. “I am Indigenous. But I grew up not knowing overly confidently that I was Indigenous,” he said.

Like the File Hills police service, he is 22 years old. He came here a few years ago, to his grandmother’s community, to learn its traditions and understand his heritage, he said. He apprenticed with the police force, doing community outreach before becoming a full constable last year.

“Being a police officer here, and working with Indigenous people – it has helped me reconnect with my culture,” he said.

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The File Hills police headquarters on Okanese First Nation.

It’s not easy looking after a sprawling jurisdiction with 3,000 on-reserve residents, but the police force is growing and has many tools in its toolkit – including 11 new-model pickup trucks, and a workforce of nearly 20 employees, among them six constables. It is about to break ground on a $6.7-million headquarters.

All of this is paid for with FNIPP funding that did not exist a generation ago.

Among the leaders who helped create the File Hills First Nations Police Service was Marie-Anne Daywalker-Pelletier, who is now retired after 40 years as chief of the Okanese First Nation, one of the five First Nations served by the force.

The bottom line, she said, is that Saskatchewan’s First Nations are often too trusting of government officials and the Mounties. “We really believe in our treaties, especially in the treaty areas of Saskatchewan,” she said. “We believe that the redcoats are people who are there to watch over us, protect us, and all that.”

During the 1990s, Ms. Daywalker-Pelletier said, the Okanese and four neighbouring First Nations in southeastern Saskatchewan had CTAs. But when the Mounties didn’t show up often enough, the reserves thought they could do better. “It was decided by all the chiefs to move to a standalone service,” she said.

The five reserves had more clout and scale together than they did individually. They formed a collective board to apply for FNIPP grants, and it became one of the few entities in Western Canada that negotiated full access to funding.

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Signs on the Okanese First Nation promote the police force and community health service.

The police force wasn’t much when it began. Public accounts show that when it started it received grants of less than $150,000 from each of the federal and provincial governments. “We had to rob Peter to pay Paul to get these things going,” Ms. Daywalker-Pelletier said.

But the five First Nations always pressed their case, and the annual allotments have since grown tenfold.

The police force now has a nearly $3-million annual budget. But that doesn’t mean it has everything it requires.

When it needs access to jail cells, it often borrows them from nearby Mountie detachments. And the RCMP will always have unmatched scale and specialization, so the Mounties loan out their major-crimes detectives and canine teams to the five reserves.

And the File Hills force has difficulty finding trained Indigenous officers. It has six retired Mounties – all Indigenous – working in its ranks.

They include Chief of Police Paul Avanthay, who spent 25 years with the Mounties before coming to File Hills.

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Paul Avanthay is chief of the File Hills police.

CTAs were always problematic, Chief Avanthay said during an interview in his office. The vision was that RCMP officers would start spending most of their time at First Nations. But the Mounties don’t have buildings on most reserves, and the program did not give First Nations money to build any.

“The very nature of them almost doomed them to failure right off the hop,” Chief Avanthay said.

What the framers of the FNIPP got right, he said, was the notion that police need to be much more present at First Nations. “Your response times are a lot quicker because you’re there, rather than responding from a community 20 to 25 minutes away,” he said. “If you have a critical incident, those 20 to 25 minutes to a half hour are extremely valuable.”

Chief Avanthay said creating more self-administered Indigenous police forces won’t solve problems unless the overall number of officers increases.

“If you look at the northern Indigenous communities, the crime severity index is eight to nine times higher than it is in other non-Indigenous communities,” he said. “That automatically is going to lead to burnout, among whoever polices it. Whether it be an Indigenous police service, or if it is a non-Indigenous service provider like the RCMP.”

File Hills does not face these crime rates, and is nowhere near as remote as the province’s northern reserves.

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Daniel Bellegarde of Little Black Bear First Nation is chair of the civilian board overseeing the File Hills police.

First Nations leaders from across the Western Canada are now coming to the community to get tips on starting up self-administered forces. What they are usually told is that Indigenous communities need to have what Canada’s big cities have: civilian police boards.

“I am a strong proponent of the need for strong police governance and oversight of police services,” said Dan Bellegarde, the chairman of the File Hills police’s force’s civilian oversight body.

Mr. Bellegarde, who is from Little Black Bear, another of the First Nations served by the File Hills force, spoke to The Globe inside a local community centre, where residents of his nation were working with a Public Safety Canada official to come up with a better community safety plan. Such conversations are now happening across Canada, as the federal government’s new First Nations policing legislation nears.

“I don’t want to see contract policing for First Nations anymore,” he said. “It just doesn’t work for us.”

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