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First Nations police demand fair funding

Marcus Bankuti The Eastern Door

The Kahnawake Peacekeepers run a 24-hour operation, so it might seem strange to find the lights off at the station. But electricity doesn’t come cheap.

“We’re trying to save money wherever we can, so we can provide the services that people need,” said Peacekeepers chief Dwayne Zacharie.

One reason for the penny pinching? Discrimination, according to the Quebec Association of First Nation and Inuit Police Directors (QAFNIPD), which represents 22 Indigenous police forces. The Peacekeepers and other First Nations police departments are funded at a rate that falls far short of neighbouring services.

“Everything that a police officer needs on a daily patrol shift, that’s what’s missing,” said Shawn Dulude, president of the QAFNIPD and chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police.

It’s the basis of a complaint lodged Monday by the association at the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC). From there, the complaint could be elevated to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT), the same body that yielded a landmark $43-billion settlement between the federal government and First Nations for chronically underfunding on-reserve child welfare services.

“For now, it’s only to stop discrimination, and then we’ll talk money later,” said Benoît Amyot, the lawyer representing the QAFNIPD.

The association’s hope is that the CHRT will ultimately agree that this underfunding is discriminatory, after which the government could be compelled to reform the system and pay out compensation for the current inequitable funding structure that has on-the-ground consequences for Indigenous policing.

“Sometimes officers are working with bulletproof vests that are five years expired, 10 years expired. It doesn’t make sense,” said Dulude. “That would never be accepted by the provincial police or the Montreal police or any other police department.”

The association’s police forces need to add 200 officers, according to Dulude, 50 percent more than are currently on the job.

For the officers already on staff, benefits and pensions are paltry in comparison to the robust packages offered by other police departments, Dulude suggested. “We have a lot of grey-haired officers working in our communities because it’s not the case for us,” he said.

According to Dulude, underfunding contributes to staffing and retention issues, with police officers in Indigenous communities earning about 30 percent less on average than non-Indigenous counterparts. In contrast, officers for Indigenous communities in Ontario earn salaries on par with what other police officers are making.

Two years ago, a local salary review was conducted for the Kahnawake Peacekeepers. “If you were a patrolman on the road, you were about 40 percent underpaid, and then as you went up the chain, the gap grew even larger,” said Zacharie.

However, while compensation was boosted for Kahnawake officers, there was no overall increase to funding, so the department still suffers from operational shortfalls and major hurdles to local policing caused by underfunding, according to Zacharie.

The Peacekeepers currently operate on an annual budget of about $6.5 million. According to Zacharie, the department’s budget is insufficient to the tune of millions of dollars; the Peacekeepers need 50 officers, he said, but only have the capacity for 36.

“I’ve even been going out on the road and working night shifts and different shifts to help the guys, so they can either have the time off or have the rest periods they need or if someone is sick or injured or whatever it is,” said Zacharie.

It’s estimated that each additional officer costs $200,000 a year between salary, training, gear, a car, and other costs, he said. However, First Nations policing is funded by the federal and provincial governments at about $130,000 per officer.

“We’re treated like second-class citizens in the realm of policing,” Zacharie said.

Given that Kahnawake has upwards of 100,000 cars a day coming through the territory, the service has to dedicate substantial resources to policing people from outside the community, Zacharie said. This creates a need for a dedicated highway patrol, which the Peacekeepers currently do not have.

Additionally, the current funding agreements include terms and conditions that undermine the Peacekeepers’ ability to provide advanced services, he said.

“You don’t always have the resources to respond to higher levels of crime, if you will, or higher levels of incidents,” he said.

This needs to change, he said, with the government needing to recognize the essential role organizations like the Kahnawake Peacekeepers play in terms of safety and security.

“First Nations policing does a lot for its communities, and each community is unique. What we’re trying to do is change how people see policing. We understand that nothing is a perfect system, but we’re totally invested in our community,” he said.

Council talks aid

While the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) does not contribute funding to the Peacekeepers, officers in 16 of 22 communities represented by the QAFNIPD are funded in part by their band councils because governmental agreements are not keeping up with funding needs, according to Dulude.

Now Kahnawake is likely to follow suit, according to MCK chief Ryan Montour, who leads the public safety portfolio.

According to Montour, Council is in discussions to create a traffic division by funding eight new officers, which would cost the MCK $1.6 million, although this division would generate some revenue through fines, he said.

“There’s strong support at the table,” said Montour. “I can’t speak for my counterparts, but I think we all agree that the Kahnawake Peacekeepers are a vital part of our community.”

A traffic division would come with costs like plate readers, updated equipment, and new courthouse staff. The division was requested by the Public Safety Unit, he said, and he expects to present it soon.

Council is also looking at a service agreement with the local gaming facilities based on a social impact study conducted last year.

Besides local solutions, Montour would like to see the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program that funds First Nations policing declared an essential service.

“It’s a long time coming,” he said. “They keep procrastinating and not living up to their end of the bargain.”

The QAFNIPD complaint with the CHRC was announced at a press conference at the Kahnawake Peacekeepers’ station on Monday.

This article was originally published in print on Friday, November 3, in issue 32.44 of The Eastern Door.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Marcus is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.

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Marcus is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.