First Nations Police Hardest Hit by Loss of Federal Funding

Written for Print Journalism Lab at Carleton University, Nov. 15, 2012.

The Treaty #3 First Nation in northwestern Ontario is planning to turn the duties of its local police service back over to the Ontario Provincial Police after a federal fund that has helped hire and train new aboriginal officers expires.

The Police Officers Recruitment Fund helped the Treaty #3 First Nation operate its own police force, which brought a culturally sensitive component to community law enforcement. But, on March 31, the five-year federal commitment to the program will end.

Economic realities are forcing the community to return policing services to the OPP – a relationship that chief of police Conrad DeLaronde said has been historically tumultuous. He said that the Treaty #3 people would rather keep their local police force.

DeLaronde’s service has policed the 23 communities in the Treaty #3 First Nation for nearly 10 years. Over the five years of the PORF program, the Treaty Three Police Service received $3.5 million to train seven officers per year.

The First Nations Chiefs of Police Association has joined several police services to pressure the federal Conservative government to reinstate the program and maintain it as a permanent recruitment fund. However, there has been no indication that lobbying efforts are succeeding, despite the federal focus on law and order.

Other police services are struggling to adapt to the loss of funding as well. Five years ago, the federal government set aside a $400-million grant, which was disbursed to the provinces for the hiring and training of 2,500 police officers. The loss of the program in March will create a budget shortfall for many police services across Canada and restrict the hiring of new officers.

The 2013 Ottawa Police Service budget required several major cuts to replace the $700,000 from the “PORF” program. Eli El-Chantiry, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, said police across Ontario are “going to feel the pinch of it” as they try to cope with the loss of funding.

While municipal services struggle to deal with the funding cuts, First Nations communities are the hardest hit because of the cultural importance of local policing.

John Medicine Horse Kelly of Carleton University, who has research interests in aboriginal affairs, said there are “distinct differences in cultural priorities” between provincial police and First Nations that will make the transition to the OPP difficult.

The OPP is an “outside force exerting pressure on a community that, for better or worse, are very tight knit,” Kelly said. This outside force approaches policing in a way that is very different from traditional aboriginal justice

“The OPP might take somebody to jail, but we bring people home,” Kelly said.

He stressed that aboriginal policing is community-based and avoids punishment; First Nations prefer a system based on “restoring justice.”

The cultural disconnect between these philosophies of justice has the potential to create difficulties as the OPP takes over policing in the Anishinaabe nation, which covers over 142,000 square kilometres.

“It’s the wishes of the communities to have their own police service, providing policing services with a culturally compatible component to it,” DeLaronde said. “The community itself does not want the OPP because of the historical mistrust between the community and the OPP.”

DeLaronde told the aboriginal news magazine Windspeaker that the loss of this money makes it impossible for his service to police all 23 communities. He said this puts both officers and citizens at risk. DeLaronde is currently in negotiations with the OPP to hand over policing responsibilities. It will mark the end of a decade of aboriginal self-policing in the Treaty #3 nation.

As for the future, DeLaronde said he isn’t sure what the long-term implications of returning policing to the OPP are. He predicted, however, that the OPP would have a tough time taking over.

“It will be very difficult for them to assume that role, to provide those core services,” he said, citing historical poor relationship between provincial police and First Nations.

In 1995, aboriginal activist Dudley George was killed by the OPP during a protest at Ipperwash Provincial Park. In response, the government of Ontario called the Ipperwash Inquiry, which made recommendations for policing First Nations communities.

The report of the Ipperwash Inquiry stressed that increased cultural training was needed for police officers. It also emphasised the importance of “communication networks and trusting relationships with aboriginal people” at all points in the policing process.

Kelly said there is some indication that the OPP and RCMP have made efforts to engage the communities that they are policing. The Ipperwash Inquiry came to the same conclusion, noting that the OPP had developed several initiatives specific to First Nations policing.

The Ipperwash Inquiry was also emphatic about the advantages exclusive to First Nations police services.

These services “make important contributions to public safety, promote culturally appropriate policing, and help to build respectful relationships between police and aboriginal peoples across the province,” the report stated.

The report also predicted that if First Nations services “are supported and sustained appropriately, they may be even more effective in the future.”

With the end of the PORF program, and no funding in sight, the economic realities are forcing the Treaty #3 First Nation to set aside a major community achievement.

The ability to sustain a local police force, said Kelly, is a major sign that a First Nations community is “strong and sovereign.”

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