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For generations, the Tsawwassen First Nation didn’t trust the police, but those living with substance abuse, crime and domestic violence still needed someone to turn to. Then one woman found a liaison who was willing to listen – and search for solutions other than harsh arrests or heavy sentences

Connie Adams, a youth leader with the Tsawwassen First Nation, stands with her friend Constable Mike Grandia of B.C.'s Delta Police.Photography by Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Connie Adams had just turned 19 when she realized her boyfriend was planning to rob her.

She’d spent the past few years running with a rough crowd of other teens in the Tsawwassen First Nation, a small coastal community about an hour south of Vancouver.

The teens acted tough and dressed the part in bright-coloured tracksuits like the gangsters she saw on TV.

The boy she’d been spending most of her time with was older and white, from a neighbouring community. Ms. Adams said he began asking a lot of suspicious questions about the treaty settlement payments each Tsawwassen First Nation citizen gets from a trust fund on their 19th birthday.

“I started feeling a little weird about all the questions he was asking me,” Ms. Adams said. “And that’s kind of when I clued in and I was like, ‘This guy’s trying to get information to come down here and rob my family.’ ”

Disillusioned and heartbroken, Ms. Adams didn’t know where to turn. For most of her life to that point, she had never trusted the cops.

“Because of the way our parents felt towards the police, it was sort of passed onto us,” Ms. Adams said. “So any time we saw a cop, it was either you’re scared or you’re mad.”

Then she met Delta police constable Mike Grandia, who helped change not just Ms. Adams’s life, but the whole approach to community policing in Indigenous communities.

The model has been so successful in Tsawwassen, it’s now being expanded to other cities. After this winter’s Wet’suwet’en crisis and months of headlines pitting Indigenous people against the police, Constable Grandia’s approach represents the potential for a new, better way.

Ms. Adams leads other youth in a drumming circle at an anti-bullying event in February. She remembers that, when she grew up, the sight of a police officer would provoke either fear or anger, and they were not seen as people to turn to for help.

Constable Grandia drives through the First Nation on his way to work in June. He seldom works in uniform.

Constable Mike Grandia is a big man – tall and broad shouldered. He’d be imposing if he chose to be, but his face is usually split by a wide, slightly goofy, grin.

He often doesn’t wear a uniform or carry a weapon. His bulletproof vest lives in the back seat of the unmarked silver minivan he drives, one that would be more at home at a soccer game than on patrol.

When he arrived in Tsawwassen First Nation six years ago, assigned as the Delta Police Department’s liaison officer, his job was to help repair years of broken trust between police and the Tsawwassen citizens.

“When I started, I acknowledged that maybe we needed to do things differently,” Constable Grandia said. “There had been issues in the community, which were negative. Gang activity, violence, a lot of those things. And the community acknowledged that we couldn’t continue to go down that same path.”

On Friday, federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Canada needs a reckoning over a pattern of police violence against Indigenous people in Canada. The minister’s comments followed the release of graphic video showing an RCMP officer ramming the door of his car into a man walking on a road in Kinngait, Nunavut, on Monday evening and the fatal shooting by police of 26-year-old Chantel Moore in Edmundston, N.B., on Thursday.

Those incidents, coupled with protests in the U.S. and Canada over the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was killed in police custody, have renewed calls to change the way policing is practised, particularly in marginalized communities. Constable Grandia’s approach represents the possibility of a new way of policing in Indigenous communities, where First Nations set the direction and the priorities.

Patrol officers from the Delta Police serve elders lunch at National Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations. The force has only been contracted to serve in Tsawwassen since the mid-2000s.

Until 2006, Tsawwassen First Nation was policed by the RCMP, like many Indigenous communities in Canada. But as it negotiated a self-governance and land claim treaty with the federal and B.C. government, it started to reconsider that arrangement.

Policing costs in B.C. towns smaller than 5,000 people, including many First Nations, are paid for through federal-provincial cost-sharing arrangements, so the community itself often pays nothing. In 2006, the Tsawwassen First Nation chose to contract its policing from the City of Delta instead of the RCMP, even though it meant having to pay. The closest RCMP detachments were too far away, and the nation hoped it could get better emergency service from neighbouring Delta. Even before its treaty was signed in 2007, TFN became one of only two First Nations in the province that paid 100 per cent of their policing costs.

Once the treaty was in place, things really began to change. With the treaty came the ability to leverage the nation’s land for economic gain through developments such as the Tsawwassen Mills mall. That in turn led to financial stability for the government, and the ability to fund social and cultural programs without reliance on provincial or federal support.

It also supports the police. In 2019, the nation paid the City of Delta just more than $3-million for policing services that also include a dedicated First Nations service team of four uniformed officers and a sergeant.

But simply paying for its own policing wasn’t the mission. The newly self-governing First Nation had the financial freedom to work toward an overall framework with health and healing as the ultimate goal, Constable Grandia said.

Ruth Adams remembers a time when the police's instinct was to stay out of their community until someone called 911, then come in and arrest people in a disruptive way.

Tsawwassen elder Ruth Adams remembers the bad, old days. When she was a child, the community had a gate overseen by an Indian agent, who monitored everyone’s movements. “You had to tell them when you were going in and out,” she said.

The intentional isolation led to many of the same social struggles that still disproportionately plague Indigenous communities – high rates of substance abuse, domestic violence and crime.

Ms. Adams said for much of her life there was little police presence in the community unless someone called 911, which would bring outside officers racing in, lights and sirens wailing. They’d arrest people, removing them from their homes in handcuffs.

“It was awful,” she said. “We hated it because nothing good ever came of it. They’d take someone and just throw them in jail.”

“We didn’t have anybody working in our own health and social departments,” she said. “So there wasn’t anybody in between us, nobody to mediate. They never got to know us, so all they knew was that we were a bunch of drunk Indians fighting each other.”

When Constable Grandia arrived in 2014 to take on the role of liaison officer, the first thing he did was sit down with the community and listen to what it wanted from him and the police. “We had community meetings that grew into bigger meetings,” he said. “We were talking about colonization, talking about residential school, asking what does trauma look like? What is intergenerational trauma, what is lateral violence?”

“And in doing that we started talking about mental health or talking about substance use. We started talking about justice measures."

One of the most important things the community wanted was to keep its youth out of the criminal justice system, Constable Grandia said. Collaborating with social workers, Constable Grandia helped design a diversion process where youth would be given alternatives to criminal charges wherever possible. And in situations in which people were charged with crimes, Constable Grandia helped secure dedicated Crown attorneys and community corrections officers who could get to know the people they were working with.

Since he started, police calls for service have gone down, and there hasn’t been a single Tsawwassen First Nation youth charged with a Criminal Code offence, he said.

But success has required years of building the trust of everyone in the community, not just the leadership. Ditching his uniform helped; it allowed people to see him as a person, not just as a cop.

The more time he spent in the community, the more people grew to trust him. One case in particular stands above the rest as the moment Constable Grandia realized just how successful the programming was.

“We had one youth who ran from the police and got away. The next day, he came into my office and said 'Hey Mike, I committed an offence last night. What do I need to do?’ ”

“And I said ‘Dude, you didn’t get caught, what are you doing here?’ He said ‘Well, I shouldn’t be doing that in the community.’ ”

Constable Grandia worked with the youth through the diversion program to make things right. What would likely have taken six months in the formal justice system was dealt with in two weeks.

Perhaps one of the most powerful expressions of Constable Grandia’s acceptance in the community is his ability to calmly intervene when people are in crisis.

Instead of rolling up with lights and sirens like the old days, Constable Grandia and one of the nation’s social workers would often be the first ones through the door.

“Let’s say you have a significant domestic situation,” Constable Grandia said. “Maybe we have the uniformed officer wait outside while myself and a family member go in and see if we can de-escalate things.”

Connie Adams has seen it work with her own family.

One of her family members struggles with mental illness, and in moments of crisis the police sometimes have to be called.

“It used to be when someone would call the police about someone on the reserve freaking out, five cop cars would roll up, sirens blaring. Then everybody on the rez is coming out of their houses going on their decks. Everybody knows, everybody sees,” she said.

All that visibility can add to the trauma, Ms. Adams says. But with her family member, Constable Grandia arrived in his silver minivan. He sat down with the family, de-escalated the situation and no one ended up in handcuffs.

“He didn’t try to restrain her or pull her out of the house onto the street, into the car. He did not want to make a scene out of it, which I am so grateful for,” Ms. Adams said.

Connie Adams's job at the Tsawwassen Youth Centre helps her bring young people on the reserve the kinds of programs she never had at their age.

At 19, Ms. Adams had been headed in a troubling direction herself.

“I was running with the wrong people, hanging out in a bad crew with this guy who was in a gang, essentially,” Ms. Adams said.

She met Constable Grandia on an annual canoe journey that brings Indigenous youth together with police officers for an extended camping and paddling trip.

“The canoe journey was, like, when I realized that I could be friends with the police; like, they are normal people too,” Ms. Adams said.

The trip also connected her more closely with her culture, which became central in changing the direction of her life. Two years after the canoe journey, Ms. Adams went to rehab, and she turned to Constable Grandia for support.

Now 22, Ms. Adams works full time at the Tsawwassen Youth Centre, helping run the kinds of programs she never had access to when she was a child.

After six years in the community, Constable Grandia is leaving. A new liaison officer, who happens to also be named Mike, has taken over the role. Constable Grandia’s job now is to take what he learned working with Tsawwassen First Nation, and try to apply it across the rest of Delta.

“There’s a lack of services for urban Indigenous people,” Constable Grandia said. “And so what we’re doing is that Delta will sort of be the sort of test case. How do we take the success that we’ve had on TFN with the youth and adult programming for Indigenous people and how do we bring that into an urban environment?”

And while Ms. Adams is sad to see her friend moving on, she says she’s proud to know that Tsawwassen youth are part of building something better beyond the reserve itself.

“We’re ready to move on. We’re ready to come into our own and make our own stories,” she said.