As Chief Wally Burns, of the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, spoke to a news conference earlier this week about the mass stabbings that had devastated his community, he made a plea to policy-makers in Ottawa and Regina.
“We ask that we have our own tribal policing,” he said.
Public inquiries have made similar calls for the past 30 years. Indigenous communities, they have said, should be served by police officers who are culturally sensitive and accountable to local leaders. Conversations about new policing models had been underway at James Smith and nearby reserves for several years prior to Sunday’s rampage.
Now, with the small community still reeling from one of Canada’s deadliest mass murders, Indigenous leaders in the province say federal and provincial officials must accelerate a move toward autonomous First Nations policing.
Currently, the RCMP are the default police force on many reserves, including the James Smith Cree Nation, where nine victims were killed and nearly 20 others injured in Sunday’s stabbing attack. A tenth victim was a resident of the nearby village of Weldon.
The RCMP have a single officer dedicated to policing the First Nation, who works out of an RCMP detachment 45 kilometres away in the village of Melfort, according to the village’s website.
The force has said it immediately deployed two officers from Melfort to the reserve after receiving an emergency call about the attack. The pair took about 40 minutes to arrive at James Smith. They found a dozen crime scenes once they got there, and the two suspects, brothers Myles and Damien Sanderson, were nowhere in sight. Damien was later found dead on the reserve, and Myles died after being arrested on Wednesday, under circumstances police have described only as “medical distress.”
Some Indigenous communities say moving away from the RCMP policing model has allowed them to respond to emergencies more effectively.
Chief Paul Avanthay, of the File Hills First Nations Police Service, says his 20-year-old force is the only standalone Indigenous police service in Saskatchewan. He said the most crucial difference between the RCMP and his team of more than 10 police officers is that the latter work in the Indigenous communities from which they hail.
“We’re here, we’re on the reserve,” he said. His officers have proximity and consistency that can help them curb threats, he added, including risks from violent offenders who return to the reserve from prison.
“That’s one of the bigger advantages,” he said. “We have people that know this person, that know their weaknesses and their habits.”
Indigenous leaders in Saskatchewan say they have spent years preparing to speak with the federal and provincial governments – which typically split the costs of RCMP officers posted to First Nations – about a roadmap to creating an autonomous First Nations-led police force spanning several reserves.
“We’re developing those models,” said vice-chief Joseph Tsannie, of the Prince Albert Grand Council, an umbrella group of 12 reserves, including the James Smith Cree Nation. He said there will be no quick fixes. “It’s about building relationships, partnerships, creating that capacity within the Indigenous community.”
Noel Busse, a spokesperson for Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Justice, said the province is planning to take part in those conversations. “We are aware of the discussions around a potential tribal police force, and will be discussing this request with our First Nations and federal partners,” he said.
Andie Habert, a spokesperson for federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, said his office is also aware of the discussions. She added that the Minister is preparing to have Parliament elevate the federal government’s role in First Nations policing by making it a matter of law, rather than one of policy.
“Minister Mendicino is committed to imminently introducing federal legislation that recognizes First Nations police services as an essential service,” Ms. Habert said.
Such measures can lead to governments increasing their investments in First Nations policing.
As Mr. Mendicino’s office considers empowering First Nations-led police forces, it has been receiving reports that the current RCMP-based model may rapidly be fraying on reserves.
Records obtained by The Globe under freedom-of-information laws show that the newly created union for 20,000 rank-and-file Mounties wrote the federal government last year to say the police force is facing a multitude of challenges in Indigenous communities.
“In our Member survey, 71 per cent of respondents identified staffing shortages as the most common challenge,” National Police Federation president Brian Sauvé wrote in a five-page June 2021 letter sent to Mr. Mendicino’s predecessor, Bill Blair.
Mr. Sauvé warned the Minister of muddy mandates for Mounties deployed to First Nations. He said confusion often surrounds the roles and responsibilities of police officers on reserves, and he pointed out that many First Nations do not have their own RCMP detachments. All this, he said, can leave RCMP officers as the only emergency service workers across several communities – a state of affairs that can cause endless churn, as police officers ask to be redeployed elsewhere.
“The understaffing and under-resourcing from the federal government is happening on the backs of our members,” Mr. Sauvé wrote.