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Tsuut'ina police chief hopeful mandate creates equitable change in Indigenous policing

While interest is high in implementing self-administered policing in Indigenous communities, Blake said “restrictive and discriminatory” practices in the system in Canada and a lack of research have made policing a challenging endeavour for Indigenous communities to pursue and sustain.

ALBERTA – Tsuut’ina Nation’s police chief has a hunch but wants to know why the three self-administered Indigenous police services in Alberta have never had lethal force encounters, despite Indigenous communities experiencing higher crime rates.

Police Chief Keith Blake suggested more research into existing Indigenous policing models to understand how enforcement methods impact crime could strengthen much-needed support for Indigenous police services in the province, which the UCP government has promised to do as part of its mandate.

“When you look at the crime stats in most Indigenous communities, they are at a higher rate. So, when you look at the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in incarceration and in the justice system, I think it speaks to something when we haven’t had those lethal encounters,” said Blake, who is also vice-president of the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association. 

“I think studies need to be directed as to why that’s the case. I think a lot can be learned as to why this is happening, and I think it’s something that should be reviewed by government.”

Blake said the Tsuut’ina Nation Police Service receives weekly inquiries from Indigenous communities across the country seeking advice on how to form their own self-administered force.

The Tsuut’ina police, Blood Tribe Police Service and Lakeshore Regional Police Service, based in Driftpile Cree Nation, are the only communities in Alberta with a Tripartite Policing Agreement – that is a permit to create an Indigenous police service operating exclusively on reserve, agreed upon by the First Nation, provincial and federal governments. The rest are policed by RCMP.

The cost of Indigenous policing is shared by the federal (52 per cent) and Alberta (48 per cent) governments, subject to the availability of funding. Last year, Siksika Nation announced it is also in the process of re-establishing its own police service. The transition is the first in Canada in 14 years.

While interest is high in implementing self-administered policing in First Nations communities, Blake said “restrictive and discriminatory” practices in the system in Canada and a lack of research have made policing a challenging endeavour for Indigenous communities to pursue and sustain.

In January 2022, the Department of Public Safety assessed the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program (FNIPP) and revealed chronic underfunding by federal and provincial governments, hampering Indigenous communities’ efforts to establish self-sufficient police services.

In a recent mandate letter to Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis, Alberta’s premier recognized the need to prioritize “modernizing and reforming” Indigenous policing programs to address insufficient funding.

Currently, policing services are funded as a program, with each body having to renegotiate agreements when the term ends individually. 

Indigenous police services also don’t get funding from the FNIPP for special units, such as major crime units, domestic assault units and canine units.

The Tsuut’ina Police Service is funded upwards of 30 per cent less than mainstream policing in the province, said Blake. 

In 2022, the Tsuut'ina police chief and Dwayne Zacharie, chief peacekeeper at the Kahnawake Peacekeepers, told the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) legislation that deems First Nations policing an essential service is needed to obtain secure and fair funding.

The government has been working on drafting First Nations policing essential service legislation with AFN as an equal partner. Marco Mendicino, federal Public Safety Minister, told The Canadian Press last December that the government hoped to table a bill in 2023.

But Blake said the issue is past the point of crisis, pointing to a judgment rendered late last year involving a First Nation located in Quebec’s Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region.

Quebec’s top court ruled in favour of the Pekuakamiulnuatsh Takuhikan First Nation, with Quebec and Ottawa owing $1.6 million to its police service due to years of underfunding.

Without the legislation, Blake said these issues will continue to negatively impact research, practice, policy, theory, and, most importantly, equitable public safety outcomes for Indigenous peoples in Canada.

“We also know that when it comes to the province of Alberta, the funding that we receive per officer is less than what the RCMP receive when dealing with their Community Tripartite Agreement (CTA) officers,” said Blake.

Community tripartite officers are also funded provincially and federally to provide enhanced services to supplement an RCMP detachment serving an Indigenous community. The agreement requires those RCMP members to spend at least 80 per cent of their time on reserve.

The RCMP detachment in Mînî Thnî, on Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation, has two CTA officers on staff. The detachment, which also serves Kananaskis, opened in 2021 under an agreement with Goodstoney, Bearspaw and Chiniki First Nations to improve police presence and response times.

For years prior, Cochrane RCMP responded to calls on the reserve and did routine patrols.

Twice a month, Tsuut’ina police also meet with the three Nations as part of the G4 Stoney Nakoda – Tsuut’ina Tribal Council partnership.

Blake said public safety is often brought up at those meetings.

“Part of the discussion is always about public safety, community safety and best practices, and we’re always available to support other communities in the G4 about what it is that they need,” he said. “Part of that discussion has to include Tsuut’ina Nation leadership, because whatever is discussed in moving forward – whether that occurs or not – would definitely have some impacts within our police service and the staffing levels to support other communities if a regional model was to be considered.”

Goodstoney Chief Clifford Poucette told the Outlook in February that Stoney leadership have met with Tsuut’ina officials to discuss self-administered policing within the Nation, but did not confirm any plans to pursue it at that time. The Outlook did not receive a response from Stoney Nakoda Nation leadership in time for publication on this story.

Blake said a self-administered force may not work for all communities, so was glad to see the province announce grant funding in April for communities to study the feasibility of transitioning to a local, self-administered police service or if a regional policing model would be a better fit.

The grant allows up to $30,000 for First Nations, Métis settlements and municipal governments with a total budget of $6 million over the next two years.

In the case of Indigenous communities, Blake, who has 25 years of service in the RCMP and 10 years as police chief of Tsuut’ina, said that while he believes both models are committed to public safety, the governance models of Indigenous police services are more flexible than RCMP. 

“It affords us the ability to adapt and change and be nimble,” he said.

The Tsuut’ina police have met with James Smith Cree Nation, the Southern Chiefs Organization – which represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota Nations in southern Manitoba and many others, to discuss policing.

“I think one of the things you’ll find when you do have a self-administered Indigenous police service is that it’s more representative of the community’s values, culture and tradition,” Blake said.

The police chief said, in his view, it all comes down to having a relationship and understanding with the community, which an RCMP service may not have at the same level due to the nature of its governance model versus an Indigenous one. 

“It allows us to be better at de-escalating situations that may not happen in different mainstream police services when you don’t know who you’re encountering and you’re not certain of the relationship you have with that individual,” he said.

The Tsuut’ina governance model also includes a policing commission to which Blake reports to. The commission is comprised of community members and local leadership to ensure responsible and accountable policing.

“Definitely, I have to answer to any of the concerns of the community,” said Blake. “Not that the RCMP don’t, but their reporting structure may not be similar in that regard.”

Dustin Daniels, a Siksika Nation peace officer, said being a member of the community he serves, he feels people are generally more trusting of him as an enforcement figure.

“When you know the language, the people and the protocols specific to that community, that is recognized, and I think, you’re viewed in a much more receptive way,” he said.

According to a 2022 Statistics Canada report, Indigenous people, at 17 per cent, were about twice more likely than non-Indigenous people, at 9.2 per cent, to have little or no confidence in their local police service, which may be an underestimation, it notes.

The same report said Indigenous people were over-represented among victims of police discrimination.

“While they accounted for about five per cent of those who had been discriminated against in general, Indigenous people accounted for 17 per cent of those who had experienced discrimination in their dealings with the police,” states the report.

Indigenous populations also experience disproportionate incarceration rates in Canada. In 2020-21, there were, on average, 42.6 Indigenous people in provincial custody per day per 10,000 population, in contrast to four non-Indigenous people, according to Statistics Canada.

In a statement to the Outlook, Michael Kwas, press secretary to the minister of public safety and emergency services, said the province is committed to supporting Indigenous policing through the police transition study grant and with additional funding this year.

“Through Budget 2023, Alberta is committing an additional $5.5 million to Indigenous policing to support recruiting and staffing more officers and ensure Indigenous police services are equipped to provide safe and secure communities,” said Kwas.

The Alberta government will also continue working with Public Safety Canada on the First Nations Policing essential service federal legislation, he added. 

“Alberta continues to work with Public Safety Canada to review the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program to address gaps created by the wait for reforms.”

NDP critic for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Brooks Arcand-Paul said the rate of incarceration is one benchmark he’ll be paying close attention to if the province sticks to its mandate and more Indigenous communities are able to secure funding to implement and expand self-administered police services.

“If we are going to be putting more police in our communities, that’s going to mean more folks being arrested from our communities. So that’s going to raise the incarceration rate,” he said.

“If we don’t do anything to identify and deal with the underlying issue of systemic racism within the criminal justice system, then we’re going to continue to just see our people locked up through this strategy, and it’s not going to be a good outcome.”

Arcand-Paul said he wants to see all Indigenous leaders invited to the table for more fulsome consultation as there is no one-size-fits-all approach for every community when it comes to policing.

“What I would like to see, and I would hold government to account on this, is collaboration with Indigenous leadership. They can’t develop these bullet points [in the mandate letter] without all Nations and all communities at the table to discuss how this is going to roll out,” he said. “All Nations don’t work in the same way. We all have different aspirations and some may choose not to access these programs, and that’s their right.

“What we need to do is understand that everyone needs to be able to access services in an equitable manner and at their own pace.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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