Saskatchewan Indigenous groups sound alarm on crime-wave crisis

By COLIN FREEZE – Globe and Mail – Mar 27, 2023

An Indigenous leader in Saskatchewan says the province’s First Nations are struggling to confront a crime wave as they await legislation and government funding to bolster policing.

Edward (Dutch) Lerat, a vice-chief of Saskatchewan’s Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said many First Nations are trying to determine how to start up and improve security forces on reserves.

“There is a crisis in our First Nations,” he said by telephone from a Saskatoon conference last week organized by the FSIN to discuss wellness and justice. “Right now, the focus is on opioids and addictions, and how that’s a conduit to other challenges – like the community lockdowns, the home invasions, the murders, the standoffs.”

Last September, a man murdered 11 people and wounded 18 others in a mass slaying centred on the James Smith Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan. The singular act of violence drew national attention, but Mr. Lerat said it should not be seen as an isolated event in the province from last year.

“There were other incidents with homicide on reserves that occurred as well,” he said. “Violent acts being fuelled by drugs, alcohol and gang activity.”

In the aftermath of the massacre, several First Nations in Saskatchewan said they would be seeking to start up their own self-administered police forces.

In doing so, they are reconsidering their long-standing reliance on Canada’s conventional contract-policing services, where Mounties have the task of patrolling sprawling jurisdictions that include reserves.

Policing reserves has long been part of the RCMP’s rural mandate, but residents of First Nations face crime problems no other Canadians encounter. A Statistics Canada report from June, 2022 says that an Indigenous person in Saskatchewan is 13 times more likely to be murdered than a non-Indigenous person – the second highest rate in Canada after Yukon.

In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would work to introduce legislation enshrining First Nations policing as an essential service. If a bill is passed by Parliament, that legislation could lead to funding infusions that could create new Indigenous police forces to be set up across Canada.

“We are hoping that it happens sooner than later,” said Mr. Lerat.

The federal government is not committing to timelines. “While it is too early to say when legislation will be tabled, we continue to work closely with co-development partners,” Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, said in a statement last week.

Last week, The Globe reported on how federally led policing programs have created a cluster of standalone Indigenous police forces in Central Canada even as these programs have bypassed most reserves in the West.

Across Canada, there are fewer than 40 Indigenous-run police forces and only one self-administered force in Saskatchewan. The Globe found that of more than 70 First Nations in Saskatchewan, 45 of them have entered into what are known as community tripartite agreements (CTAs) involving the RCMP.

The CTAs provide more federal funding for Mounties to spend extra time on reserves so they can get to know the people who live there. But senior Saskatchewan RCMP officials acknowledge that these resources have been redirected from the promised community outreach and instead are being used to backfill standard policing positions, with no special focus on reserves.

In December, Saskatchewan’s top Mountie said that the RCMP is struggling with its overall staffing levels, particularly in communities incorporating the northern reserves.

“Some of those workloads are ten times what they should be through our resourcing methodology,” Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore told The Globe in an interview. She added that “those workloads are just not manageable. It is not sustainable the way we are going.”

Because the province is not hiring any more Mounties for contract policing, she said the RCMP plans to start redeploying from southern Saskatchewan. “We will have to move those positions,” said Assistant Commissioner Blackmore. “We have no choice – we have to do something.”

Police force across Canada are also dealing with absences resulting from various forms of leave. A report released by the Library of Parliament in January found that the Saskatchewan Mounties had a sustained vacancy rate of 8.7 per cent – the highest level of any RCMP jurisdiction except for Newfoundland.

During the three-day FSIN conference last week, Indigenous leaders met with police and political leaders to discuss policy solutions including drug-treatment and mental-health supports. But September’s mass-casualty attack by a killer who was unimpeded by any security force remains a galvanizing event for many First Nations.

“The conventional policing model failed James Smith in a number of areas,” said Mr. Lerat in an interview.

The FSIN vice-chief said the nearest Mountie detachment was located too far away from the reserve, and that police were unable to immediately scramble in sufficient numbers. “The RCMP were understaffed,” he said. “There were not enough officers in the area for that specific long weekend.”

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