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A battle for recognition for Indigenous police services

Courtesy Kahnawake Peacekeepers

First Nations police need better funding from the federal and provincial governments to serve their communities effectively, Kahnawake’s chief Peacekeeper told the Assembly of First Nations Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) last week.

Dwayne Zacharie , formerly the president of the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association (FNCPA), has spent years lobbying the federal government to recognize Indigenous Police Services as essential, and implement a legal and funding framework that reflects the importance of their work. 

Currently, First Nations police services are funded as ‘programs’ under the First Nations Policing Program (FNPP), which was implemented in 1991 and gives Public Security Canada the authority to administer funding – which comes from both federal and provincial channels.

Zacharie said the FNPP hasn’t changed much over the course of its more than 30-year lifespan. Special interest groups like the FNCPA have long argued that this system is broken and maintains an unequal status quo between Indigenous and non-Indigenous police services. 

“[The current system] basically requires us to justify our existence, year to year to year, or for however long the policing agreement is,” said Zacharie. 

“First Nations police officers, generally speaking, are underpaid and doing virtually the same job. And when I say virtually, I don’t mean that they’re doing only maybe 90 percent of what other officers are doing – no, they’re actually doing more.”

Jerel Swamp, originally from Akwesasne, now the president of the FNCPA and Rama police chief, knows that changes to the legal framework and the funding structure will make it easier to do their jobs. 

“Right now, we’re not funded to meet those adequacy standards, we’re doing it, but we’re not funded for it,” said Swamp. A quarter of the country’s First Nations communities don’t have their own police services, he said.

Swamp and Zacharie both explained that this underfunding affects every facet of their work, whether it’s training, equipment, victim services, employee retention, or pensions.

In 2018, the Tudeau government announced a federal investment of up to $291.2 million over five years for policing in First Nations and Inuit communities, funding that would be administered through the FNPP. 

Prime minister Justin Trudeau first publicly committed to reforming this system in 2019, when he tasked public safety minister Bill Blair and then-Indigenous services minister Marc Miller with co-developing a legislative framework for First Nations policing. 

In December 2020, Trudeau announced that his government would expedite the process, providing $1.5 million to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) to co-develop legislation in tandem with the Canadian government, but two years later, no legislation has been passed. 

“The FNCPA would like this process to be expedited,” said Swamp. “We’ve been arguing the need for this kind of legislation for many years.” Swamp said this sense of urgency is magnified by the uncertainty of how much longer the Trudeau government will be in power and whether the next government will share the same priorities.

For Swamp, the September stabbings in James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan underscored the need for immediate systemic overhaul. Ten people died and 18 others were injured. It took the RCMP 40 minutes to respond to the first emergency call. Many First Nations communities don’t have their own police services.

Zacharie knows that outside policing isn’t an option for Kahnawake. “If we go away or become extinct, who fills that gap? In many other communities or many other areas in the country it’s the RCMP or it’s the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), or the Surete du Quebec (SQ).  

“Is that a reality for our community? Absolutely not.”

Other provinces have made strides towards equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous police services. The province of Alberta has amended their policing law to uphold First Nations police services as essential, and in the wake of the James Smith Cree First Nation tragedies, Saskatchewan is making its own set of commitments. 

Ontario’s amendments to their Police Services Act are set to take effect in the Spring, and will allow the province’s nine standalone Indigenous police services to opt in to the Police Services Act in order to become an essential service.

In Quebec, the former minister of public security, Geneviève Guilbault, tabled Bill 18 last December, which promised to “modernize policing” in the province. However, it died before the election. Zacharie expects that it will be re-tabled and warns that it could have a negative effect on the autonomy of Indigenous police services. 

For Zacharie and Swamp, this advocacy is about community well-being.

“We provide a different kind of policing in our communities than mainstream policing,” said Swamp. “Every service talks about community policing; we truly provide community policing.”

He added that they measure their progress in the health of their communities. “We don’t come in as an enforcement body, we come in as an organization that wants to become involved in solving the community’s problems.”

Zacharie echoed this sentiment, saying “the [Kahnawake] peacekeepers are invested in their communities. They live here, they work here. So they understand the fabric of society here.”

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