‘They're not alone’: Nishnawbe Aski Police Service launches program for victims of domestic violence

Building on an earlier pilot, the largest First Nations police service in the country is poised to provide new resources for victims and survivors in its 34 communities
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Nov 26, 2020
Alana Morrison, of the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, began developing the Survivor Assistance Support Program pilot in 2017. (Courtesy of Alana Morrison)

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“I felt really lost, I felt worthless, and I felt like no one cared,” says Alana Morrison, reflecting on how she felt 25 years ago when she was experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse in her own life. Now Morrison is an acting detective sergeant with the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, the largest First Nations police service in the country.

In 2017, Morrison started developing a pilot, called the Survivor Assistance Support Program, for victims and survivors of domestic violence in the 34 communities NAPS serves across northern Ontario. After a gap in funding following the 2018 pilot, NAPS is relaunching the program on December 11. “I want women in the north to know that, even though they’re isolated — if they can’t leave their communities due to flight restrictions or if they’re in a home with an abuser — they’re not alone,” she says. “There’s someone out there that actually cares and wants to help.”

During Morrison’s 18 years with NAPS, 14 of which she spent as a detective specializing in sexual offences against children, she saw that it often took a long time for a referral to reach victim services after a report of domestic violence. Sometimes, she says, it could take weeks. The process became even longer when the victim didn’t have a private phone number. In that case, their only option was to send a letter to her home address.

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The Survivor Assistance Support Program aims to close this gap. “When a victim comes forward, they’ve already endured years of abuse. [It’s] a critical time,” says Morrison, adding that a victim may be confused during this time, lacking support from family or friends, or isolated in a small community.

During the one-year pilot in 2018, two female-identifying Indigenous officers worked directly with four First Nations communities in the NAN Territory, which covers an area — from the Manitoba border up the James Bay Coast to the Quebec border — equal to two-thirds of the province of Ontario. The four communities chosen were Sandy Lake First Nation, Mishkeegogamang First Nation, Attawapiskat First Nation, and Moose Factory First Nation.

The officers were responsible for making immediate contact with each victim of sexual or domestic assault to check on their overall well-being and provide them with information on their case and with immediate referrals, as needed. Another goal of the program is to help women navigate the justice system and provide ongoing care before, during, and after the trial process. The last pillar of the program is education, Morrison says, noting that SASP was able to connect with more than 600 women through classes on domestic violence, which addressed such issues as the definition of violence and assault, how violence affects us, and how to help someone who is in a violent relationship.

The detachments, Morrison says, “thought it was making a difference in women’s lives to have that added support — it was in no way meant to take over any services that we already had, but we were able to enhance them by having a female First Nations officer advocate on behalf of the victim.” After the pilot finished, Morrison tried for grants at the provincial and federal levels but was continuously turned down. “I tried to include statistics for the applications, but the program did not run long enough [to have many statistics],” she says.

When COVID-19 hit, the gap in victim support grew more obvious, Morrison says, and

map showing the area NAPS serves
Coverage map of detachment regions. (Courtesy of the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service)

she renewed her determination to find funding for the roughly $400,000-a-year program. Ultimately, she was successful; in September, the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Indigenous Services (at the federal level) and the Indigenous Relations and Ministry Partnerships Branch (at Indigenous Affairs Ontario), confirmed they would split the cost 51 per cent and 49 per cent.

For the relaunch of the program, which Morrison will supervise, NAPS has chosen to hire three First Nations social workers, rather than officers. “Police officers, we wear many hats,” says NAPS deputy chief Darryl Snider. “But if you wear a lot of hats, you’re not always really good at some of  them — when you’re under-resourced, and you have 34 communities, if you don’t have the people to follow up with victims, it turns into more of a reactive police service.”

NAPS, Snider says, wants to continue to adopt a more proactive approach to policing, which includes improving follow up with victims. Morrison adds, “We wanted to let the officers focus on the investigation and have the social workers focus more on trauma-informed interviews and working specifically with victims.”

The three social workers are finishing two weeks of training before heading to Sioux Lookout, Cochrane, and Thunder Bay, where they will be working closely — and sharing office space — with Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services.

Gillian Schaible, who manages the victim-witness-liaison program for NAN Legal, says she believes that working together will be beneficial for everyone.  At the time of an incident, she say, victims aren’t always ready to accept help or involve other people in their personal business: “[SASP workers] will be able to follow up appropriately, at what may be a better time, to talk about the different services that are available to them.  [NAN Legal] can then take up a lot of the administration work of going through the court process to make sure that there are supports and accurate information in place.”

The SASP relaunch has funding for one year only, though NAPS hopes to eventually make the initiative permanent. “NAPS, being a program instead of an essential service — we’re not in the Police Services Act as of yet, so we do rely heavily on funding and grants,” says Snider, adding that it applies annually for funding for many of its other specialty units. “It’s not something that we’re unfamiliar with, but it’s difficult because you don’t know year to year.”

Erick Laming, a criminology PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and a member of Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation, says that First Nations police have been calling on the government to recognize them as an essential service, which would guarantee access to funding. “The First Nations Policing Program is intended to enhance existing policing services in First Nations communities,” says Laming. “But, over time, self-administered First Nations police services have become core policing bodies in many communities despite the chronic lack of funding, support, and resources necessary to provide that enhanced level of service.”

While the federal government has a fiduciary responsibility for Indigenous policing, Laming says, the way it has operated and delivered the program over the last three decades suggests a lack of concern and commitment: “If it was taken seriously, First Nations police services would have been deemed an essential service long ago.” (TVO.org contacted Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office for comment but did not receive a response by publication time.)

“We haven’t had that issue that a lot of other police services are having with defunding police and, if anything, First Nations policing needs more funding,” says Snider. “We have 34 communities — probably two-thirds of them are isolated — and a lot of the victims don’t have the resources to get help. A lot of times, the families are intermingled, and they don’t have anywhere to go. They don’t have anybody to turn to. This program is so important to give people a little bit of hope and to show that someone cares.”

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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