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Christie Blatchford

OPP on remote reserve chased out by rock-throwing mob Add to ...

The entire Ontario Provincial Police detachment at the remote Pikangikum First Nation was marched off the reserve five weeks ago by a rock-throwing mob of elected councillors and residents.

The stunning forced departure of 11 OPP members from the isolated community, reached in summer only by air or water, went publicly unacknowledged by the force until now.

It was also almost entirely unreported, with only a couple of small stories, none with any detail, appearing locally about a week after the June 30 incident.

These stories either mentioned that "some officers" had been forced to leave or described the incident as a protest in which no one was hurt.

But an OPP occurrence report obtained by The Globe and Mail paints a very different picture - of a chaotic scene that saw officers pushed and shoved as the mob forced its way into the station, with several men trying at one point to get at the vault containing the detachment's firearms, while others cut power and phones and disabled or blocked police cruisers.

The crowd followed the police to their residence trailer, where two off-duty constables were asleep. Over shouts of "Burn it with them inside!" a sergeant negotiated permission from the mob to wake up the officers and allow them a few minutes to pack their things.

"Police then walked approximately two kilometres to the airport carrying their personal belongings and being followed by approximately 200 people, vehicles and [a]front-end loader," the report says.

"Once at the airport," the document continues, "police waited on the north side of the terminal building as community members continued to throw rocks over the building at them."

Though officers were grossly outnumbered and effectively under attack, they never did abandon the community, OPP Superintendent Ron van Straalen, commander of the northwestern Ontario region, said Thursday - with those being run out of town staying at the airport until their replacements had arrived.

But the 11 officers, including an inspector who had been sent to Pikangikum to try to negotiate matters with the band, did fly out that night, Supt. van Straalen confirmed.

None who were part of the mass exile have returned, he said, though he said some of them hoped to go back and he hoped they would too.

"The officers were outstanding," he told The Globe in a telephone interview from Thunder Bay. "They took what was thrown at them, did what they felt [they could do] It could have turned so bad."

Unbelievably, this isn't the first time the Pikangikum band has sent the entire detachment into exile, but rather the second time in little more than a year.

In the spring of 2009, after a band councillor threatened to bulldoze the detachment, the OPP contingent left, with a crew from the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service in Thunder Bay replacing them at a moment's notice.

That time, the catalyst was that a teacher had fallen in love with the OPP secretary, who had recently broken up with the son of one of the councillors. Council subsequently passed a resolution firing the teacher, which it demanded the OPP enforce. On legal advice, the OPP refused, and the council then passed a resolution ordering the OPP to leave.

This time, the revolution was sparked by the arrest in late June of a deaf and mute man who was, the OPP allege, trying to pull an officer's firearm from the holster.

The man "was combative, assaultive, refused to let go of the firearm and was subsequently struck in the face by police in order to stop him from trying to gain control of the officer's firearm," the occurrence report says. "Members of the band council then decided to evict the OPP from Pikangikum, a move that would leave the community with no policing services."

Pikangikum is a troubled reserve that has been in the news before, most tragically as the youth suicide capital of Canada for the clusters of teen suicides that erupt from time to time, but also as a place where 90 per cent of the homes for its 2,700 people lack indoor plumbing and sewage service.

"As a Canadian, I'm ashamed to admit that's happening in this country," Karl Walsh, president of the OPP Association who flew to Pikangikum two days after the officers were forced out, told The Globe.

But, he said, "When we [the OPP]leave there, teachers don't want to be there, nurses don't want to be there. If we aren't there, that community will descend into chaos."

Mr. Walsh is also deeply concerned by the fact that it was elected councillors, ostensible community leaders, who were directing what he called "thuggery and hooliganism."

He deplored the situation as fraught for his members. "We don't have enough assets," he said. "Communications are medieval; it's a serious officer safety risk - you're at one end and I'm at the other, we can't talk to one another."

But more than that, he is alarmed by the message sent when a community ejects an entire contingent of police. "Now we've let it happen a second time," he said, "it will happen a third time."

Furthermore, he's concerned by the OPP response. As he put it, bad enough that "this band still thinks it's appropriate to be dictating operational policy to the OPP." But the OPP, by not insisting that it is the force, not the council, which determines who will police the area, appears to be allowing council to do just that.

In this apparent deference to the will of aboriginal leaders, the Pikangikum situation is reminiscent of the lengthy standoff in Caledonia, Ont., near Hamilton, where a group of protesters from the nearby Six Nations reserve who occupied a subdivision under construction often appeared to be giving marching orders to the OPP.

Supt. van Strallen said it was to correct that misapprehension that the senior officers were first sent to Pikangikum, "to try and explain certain aspects. Then it went sideways on us."

Shortly after the June 30 incident, the OPP dispatched an eight-member criminal investigation team to the reserve.

Five weeks later, as Supt. van Straalen confirmed, there have been no arrests, and the investigation continues.

Yet the detailed occurrence report identifies the 11 OPP officers, including the inspector, three sergeants and a staff sergeant, as witnesses; puts eight of 11 elected councillors at the scene as participants and identifies some as instigators (including one who repeatedly pushed a constable as a group was breaking into the detachment and another who ripped the telephone from the wall and then barricaded herself in the constables' office), and also identifies by name community residents who either destroyed property or assaulted officers.

Supt. van Straalen said when he went to Pikangikum about a week after the incident, "People were waving and apologizing. Don't forget, there are 2,700 people there, and 2,500 of them weren't involved [in the riot]"

Mr. Walsh said the association was promised by departing OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino that "those who participated" would be held accountable. "One would like to think somebody would be arrested," he said.

There's an Ontario Transportation Ministry compound in the community with a fence around it, Mr. Walsh said, and the OPPA asked that the new police station be similarly fenced, but was told "it would send the wrong message.

"Well fuck that," he said. "The message already has been sent - if we don't like the way you do things, we're going to come after you with bulldozers, mobs and rocks."

cblatchford@globeandmail.com

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