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A sign greets people on the Siksika First Nation, east of Calgary near Gliechen, Alta., on June 29. After 20 years, Siksika Nation has re-instated their self-administered police service after the nation and provincial government successfully brokered a deal with the federal minister of public safety.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

A First Nation in Alberta has reached an agreement to break away from the RCMP and form a self-administered Indigenous police force.

Friday’s announcement from the Siksika Nation, which is southeast of Calgary, occurs on the eve of a national legislative debate over the future of First Nations policing in Canada.

The RCMP still plays a leading role in policing most Indigenous communities even though a federal-provincial program was formed more than 30 years ago to encourage First Nations to create autonomous police forces.

Under the agreement, two full-time employees paid for by the federal and provincial governments are laying the groundwork for how the new police force in the Siksika Nation will operate.

Today, many Indigenous leaders say that safety in their communities will only be secured when they can create and sustain their own force.

“We’re trying to make our nation safe,” Chief Ouray Crowfoot of the Siksika First Nation said in an interview on Friday. “Trying to make our people safer. And this is a huge step forward in that process.”

He said he has grown increasingly concerned about the ability of Mounties from nearby detachments to respond to emergency calls in a timely manner on the reserve, which is the second largest in the country by land mass.

Alberta, Siksika Nation call on Ottawa to eliminate roadblock preventing creation of new Indigenous police force

“We do have a good working relationship with the RCMP, but it’s just not the same,” he said, adding that a standalone police force on the reserve will save time in a crisis. “Those minutes of response time is the difference between maybe leaving in an ambulance, and leaving to the morgue.”

Chief Crowfoot said this month’s mass killing in Saskatchewan underscores the kinds of problems faced by Indigenous communities that rely on police stationed outside the reserve.

On Sept. 4, 10 people were stabbed to death, most of them at the James Smith Cree Nation. The Saskatchewan community is policed by an RCMP detachment 45 kilometres away.

Several residents of that reserve thanked Mounties who secured their community after the violence, including by pursuing the lead suspect in a four-day manhunt that culminated in his death.

But Wally Burns, Chief of the James Smith Cree Nation, also called upon government officials for a new deal. “We ask that we have our own tribal policing,” he said in a speech days after the massacre.

Such demands are not new. For the past 30 years, federal and provincial governments have shared the cost of the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program, which pays salaries and other costs for police officers who patrol reserves.

The arrangement helps pay for self-administered First Nations police forces and for the Mounties who serve reserves. Public Safety Canada spokesperson Tim Warmington said Ottawa’s cost for the program has nearly doubled in the past decade, from $112-million a year to $212-million.

Yet First Nations say governments have never invested enough in their security. Public Safety Canada’s website says only 36 of nearly 200 agreements reached under the program have led to self administered Indigenous police forces.

Most First Nations are still patrolled by Mounties, and that includes territories where several Indigenous police forces were started under the policing program in1990s, only to fold by the early 2000s.

That was the fate of seven self-administered forces in Alberta, including one at the Siksika Nation. Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said the overarching problem has been a lack of sustainable funding, as well as governments’ inability to underwrite the full range of policing costs on reserves.

Fixing problems on First Nations amounts to a matter of investment, he said in an interview. “Policing is a provincial jurisdiction. This is just about getting the funding right and making sure it’s equitable, flexible and sustainable.”

In July, Mr. Shandro announced that he would back the Siksika Nation in its renewed bid for a standalone police force. In a joint announcement on Friday, he and federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said this will become a reality in coming years.

“This will be the first First Nations self-administered policing service established in the last 14 years,” Mr. Shandro said.

Meantime, Mr. Mendicino will soon announce a bill that would make First Nations policing a priority. “Minister Mendicino is committed to imminently introducing federal legislation that recognizes First Nations police services as an essential service,” spokesperson Andie Habert said earlier this month.