The deadly cost of underfunding First Nations police

Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service hopes new bill will end years of inequality in law enforcement
By Jon Thompson - Published on November 3, 2017
The 2009 Kashechewan inquest found that 19 of Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service’s 35 detachments didn’t meet building codes. (Jon Thompson)

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​THUNDER BAY — There is a double standard in Ontario’s law enforcement, according to the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service and the Indigenous political leadership of remote northern Ontario. For years, as evidence of inequity has mounted, they’ve been pressuring governments for change.

The Safer Ontario Act, announced by the provincial government on Thursday, would repeal the Police Services Act and, in part, require governments to provide participating First Nations police programs with “equitable” standards to other police services.

The federal government introduced First Nations policing services in 1992, but in Ontario, these new organizations were treated as “programs” rather than “services.” This distinction meant that First Nations police weren’t subject to the Police Services Act’s human resources or infrastructure standards. Such services were designed to provide a cultural perspective that would enhance policing, but in northern Ontario, they replaced the Ontario Provincial Police, which now assists only in major crime cases.

When NAPS — Canada’s largest First Nations police force — was launched at a press conference in 1994, three First Nations, including Muskrat Dam, held their own press conference in the same Thunder Bay hotel to announce they would be keeping the OPP. According to then-Muskrat Dam Deputy Chief Alvin Fiddler, NAPS “wasn’t a real, essential police service.”

From the beginning, the federal Aboriginal Policing Directorate hoped the programs would be “equal in quality to policing services found in similar communities elsewhere in their region” — although it conceded that “present funding may not meet all the aspirations of First Nations communities.”

By 1996, the directorate insisted, “the First Nations police service must meet the standards of the province or territory in which it operates.” Policing is a provincial responsibility, however, and for two decades, Ontario made no effort to create a legal mechanism that would ensure those standards were met.

“It’s as if they were set up to fail through this flawed model,” says Fiddler, now the grand chief of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation. “[It’s] not based on the needs of our communities, the needs of our police service. It’s not based on any standard or code — and that’s what we need to change.”

According to the OPP’s 2016 figures, overseeing the 35 communities NAPS polices would cost $70 to $80 million per year. NAPS operates annually on $27 million, a budget that has increased only 10 per cent in the last decade.

When non-Indigenous police services face unexpected costs overruns, they can ask their municipalities for more funding and then appeal to the Ontario Civilian Policing Commission if councils reject their requests. By contrast, First Nations policing programs have fixed budgets determined by the First Nations Policing Partnership, a renewable blanket contract that covers 186 policing agreements across Canada. The federal government pays 52 per cent of FNPP budget costs, and the provinces absorb the other 48 per cent.

NAPS Chief Terry Armstrong says that because of this budget formula, he’s been forced to watch his organization erode. He estimates the NAPS’s deficit will be more than $2 million by the end of the fiscal year.

“[The FNPP contracts] weren’t negotiated. They were ‘take it or leave it.’ I’ve been there when they’ve used that terminology,” Armstrong says. “It’s like asking your dad for a raise in your allowance. He says no, you’re out of luck.”

NAPS’s decaying infrastructure has cost lives. In January 2006, 22-year-old Ricardo Wesley and 20-year-old James Goodwin died in a fire in the “dilapidated” NAPS detachment in Kashechewan First Nation. The men were being held for public intoxication. 

In 2001, a report from a federal consultant had determined that the station needed to be replaced. But five years later, the building still lacked working smoke detectors, sprinklers, and fire extinguishers. The jury in the 2009 inquest that followed called on the governments of Canada and Ontario to build proper bricks-and-mortar detachments, and urged them to provide NAPS “with the funding required to ensure that the communities it serves receive the same level and quality of policing services and infrastructure that non-First Nations communities receive.” It specifically called for governments to adhere to the Police Services Act’s adequacy standards.

The Mushkegowuk Tribal Council — of which Kashechewan is a member — filed a Canadian Human Rights Commission complaint in 2007, alleging systemic inequity in its policing. The case has yet to be resolved.

In February 2013, a constable working alone in Kasabonika Lake First Nation arrested 23-year-old Lena Anderson for intoxication following an altercation in her home. A child welfare worker accompanied the officer and seized Anderson’s three-year-old daughter. The officer detained Anderson in the back seat of a NAPS truck because there was no heat in the Kasabonika detachment. He left her alone for 16 minutes. He later testified that during that time, she died by suicide.  

NAPS and NAN issued a joint public-safety notice two weeks after Anderson’s death declaring the program could no longer safely police their communities.

“NAN’s communities have been put in grave jeopardy because of the Federal and Provincial governments’ decision to chronically underfund NAPS,” it read. “This chronic underfunding is exacerbated by Ontario’s failure to legislate a regulatory framework for NAPS.”

The notice concluded by saying, “It is our view that on a going forward basis, the Federal and Provincial governments will be responsible, legally and morally, for future deaths that are caused by inadequate resources. As the leadership entrusted with ensuring the safety of a large community, we can longer sit idly by and allow for these long standing issues to continue to jeopardize the safety of First Nation communities.”

None of the ministers responsible for policing or Indigenous affairs at either the provincial or federal level issued any response.

“The truth is, it probably represented the final straw in many ways for NAN and NAPS leadership,” says NAN’s lawyer, Julian Falconer. “What changed was the decision by the grand chief, the deputy grand chief, and the chief of NAPS to refuse to sign another agreement until the rules of engagement were changed — until the program was put on track to become law.”

A new FNPP contract, signed the same month, included language that would make First Nations police and their boards legally liable for their detachments meeting building code.

The 2009 Kashechewan inquest found that 19 of NAPS’s 35 detachments didn’t meet building codes. Four years later, new modular units had been approved for only seven of those 19 detachments, and only one had been built. When NAN refused to sign the FNPP, a federal negotiator indicated that doing so was a condition of building a new detachment in Eabametoong First Nation (Fort Hope).

“We were waiting for the building in Eabametoong to be built, and one of the bureaucrats of the day, who has since retired, said, ‘Well, we’re not going to build the building,’” Armstrong says. “It was bordering on extortion, in my mind.”

NAN didn’t sign and the federal government stopped funding NAPS in 2014 when the existing contract expired. Then-NAN Deputy Chief Fiddler approached the province, suggesting they work together to develop legislation that would finally create a legal framework for NAPS. If NAPS folded, the province would have been legally responsible for policing the Far North.

The Ontario government bankrolled NAPS for more than a year as the parties created standards for First Nations policing. NAN agreed to sign the FNPP on the condition that Ontario commit to ushering accountability standards into law.

In May 2014, the auditor general issued a report that profiled “deficient” detachment conditions in Eabametoong, condemned the condition of officer housing across northern Ontario, and highlighted the province’s lack of legislative framework for First Nations policing.  “These conditions,” it said, “present potentially serious health and safety risks to police officers, detainees, and members of communities.”

Two weeks before the report’s release, the FNPP announced $3.5 million for a new state-of-the-art detachment in Eabametoong. It was completed in October 2015. 

“We stood our ground,” Fiddler says. “We’re way beyond being pressured by anyone [saying, sign this], ‘or this will not happen.’ We were very strong in our position, and they had to come through — and they did.”

When Fiddler was elected grand chief in August 2015, he made it clear he wouldn’t sign the 2018 policing agreement until NAPS was made a service instead of a program.

The pressure on the government became public in July 2016 when NAPS officers gave their union a 95 per cent strike mandate. With the exception of a 1 per cent increase in 2010, NAPS officer wages had been frozen since shortly after the program’s inception. NAPS’s program status meant it could not be deemed an essential service: in the case of a strike, it would have been legally responsible for law enforcement in dozens of remote communities. The agreement — reached a day before the strike could have legally begun — granted NAPS officers an 11 per cent pay increase retroactive to 2014, which is on par with the OPP.

At the inquest into Anderson’s death in November 2016, NAPS board chair Mike Metatawabin stated that NAPS was not in a position to keep NAN communities and their officers safe and requested that the jury recommend either disbanding the program or for the province to bring it under the Police Services Act in 2017. The jury urged Ontario to do the latter.

Negotiations over how the proposed legislation would impact First Nations policing were still underway the day before the bill’s contents were made public. In a release, Fiddler calls Thursday’s announcement an “historic moment,” adding, “The days of First Nations policing being run as a program are finally over.” 

Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde says timetables and interim measures working toward achieving what the bill promises will be “equitable” First Nations policing services will vary.

“We need to make sure we help them and support them in this transition,” she says. “For us, it’s very important they have the choice to opt in and we’re encouraging them to do that. This is moving forward in the next month. We will have a conversation with each First Nations policing [service] because they’re all unique with their own requirements and ability to transition.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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