Erick Laming is a PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto and a member of the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation. His research focuses on police use of force and police accountability, and its effects on Indigenous and Black community members.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is receiving $238.5-million from the federal Liberal government over the next few years to deploy body-worn cameras (BWCs) across Canada – a significant financial commitment, despite the limited empirical evidence of the effectiveness of BWCs in Canada. Even the RCMP’s earlier research and trials around body cameras were inconclusive on the matter.
But what makes this decision worse is that there is something that has been tested and has been working for 30 years that hasn’t received the same level of preference: Indigenous-led policing.
Currently, First Nations police services operate as a program that is cost-shared between the federal government and provincial/territorial governments, meaning that their budgets depend on the negotiation process between those governments and the Indigenous community in question. These arrangements are short-term and must be repeatedly renegotiated, which prevents long-term strategic planning for effective policing in those communities.
First Nations policing varies throughout Canada, but generally take two forms: Self-Administered (SA) services, where an Indigenous community (or group of communities) is responsible for administering its own police service, or through Community Tripartite Agreements (CTAs), where the RCMP (or the provincial police, in the cases of Ontario and Quebec) are responsible for policing services in specific Indigenous areas.
There are 36 SA First Nations police services spread throughout Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, while CTAs exist in all provinces and territories. When the First Nations Policing Program began in 1991, there were close to 60 SA First Nations services. Several agencies have since disbanded due to a lack of funding and support from our government, and the SA First Nations services that have survived have done so with limited resources and support. Still, despite often unique and challenging issues and a lack of adequate resources, they deliver effective and enhanced policing to the communities they serve.
Indigenous leaders and the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association have been pushing the federal government to recognize these law enforcement agencies as essential services for years. This is important, as it might also prompt Indigenous communities to form their own dedicated police services to deliver culturally responsive policing. In response, however, federal leaders have repeatedly made empty promises to do so. In early December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government would soon introduce legislation to make Indigenous-led policing an essential service, as well as giving the Assembly of First Nations up to $1.5-million to start co-developing the legislation with the federal government. This is a promising development, but there is no timeline for this to happen and it could take months before legislation is introduced in the House of Commons. First Nations are right to be wary, too, given that much lip service has been paid in recent years to the idea of a legal framework to entrench these policing agencies as essential.
Some provincial governments, such as Alberta’s, have recently recognized Indigenous policing as essential in legislation. This is an important and necessary move, but there is still no guaranteed funding base for Indigenous police under that legislation.
Therefore, it is crucial that the federal government recognizes First Nations policing as essential and commit to long-term, indefinite, and sustainable funding for Indigenous police across Canada. It must also consult Indigenous communities on any framework, so that the people responsible for safety in those communities are active participants in the process of entrenching and legislating Indigenous policing.
Policing agencies and governments alike have claimed that body-worn cameras will improve transparency and accountability. We hope this will happen, but there is little evidence in Canada to suggest this will be the case. In the meantime, we know that Indigenous-led policing works. These services have beaten all odds in being effective at what they do, and with much less available to them than other non-Indigenous police services.
The federal government needs to stop stalling and fully recognize Indigenous policing as essential. This should have been done a long time ago. This should be the main priority now. Instead of spending millions on what is ultimately an experiment, Ottawa must commit to something we know can actually help underserved communities.
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