‘Trust has been broken’: Pikangikum First Nation, the OPP, and the future of policing

After expelling the OPP from the community, chief and council say they want to establish their own police force. What would that involve — and how could the system be changed?
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Apr 16, 2021
Pikangikum First Nation is located about 230 kilometres north of Kenora. (Facebook)

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Last month, Pikangikum First Nation chief and council voted to remove the Ontario Provincial Police from their community, about 230 kilometres north of Kenora, over allegations of sexual assault involving at least one member of the service. “This is not a course of action we take lightly and the consequences are far-reaching,” said Chief Dean Owen in a statement. “Trust between our organizations has been broken.”

In a statement, the OPP confirmed that, at the request of Pikangikum leadership, all 10 officers had left the community on March 19: “In the meantime, Pikangikum Police and First Nation Peacekeepers will be responsible for policing and community safety services until further notice.”

A spokesperson for the Special Investigations Unit confirmed to TVO.org that the police watchdog had been “notified of a single sexual assault incident involving the OPP in this area.” A separate spokesperson told TVO.org that “two investigators have been assigned to this case. They are continuing to make efforts to determine what transpired.”

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The day after the OPP left, Indigenous Services Canada removed health-care workers from Pikangikum. “The community leadership required that all OPP officers leave the community resulting in a significant reduction of a police presence,” an ISC spokesperson told TVO.org in a statement. “Due to safety and security concerns, the ISC primary care practitioners were evacuated the evening of March 20, 2021.” Mathew Hoppe, chief executive officer of the Independent First Nations Alliance, a tribal council that provided health-care support to Pikangikum after the federal nurses had left, disagreed with ISC’s assessment, saying, “There is no credible threat to the nursing station and staff there. None whatsoever.”

On March 22, the nurses began flying back to the community daily; on April 10, they returned full-time, in part because of “a commitment by Pikangikum First Nation to increase security at the nursing station to three [security] guards per shift,” said the ISC spokesperson.

In a statement to TVO.org, a spokesperson for the OPP said “any decision as to whether OPP members return to the community… ultimately rests with the Chief and Council.”

The incident in March is not the first time Pikangikum has expelled the OPP from the community. The OPP were instructed to leave Pikangikum after separate incidents in 2009 and 2010, according to reporting by the Globe and Mail. In a statement to TVO.org, the OPP confirmed they have been asked to leave Pikangikum “on more than one occasion over the past 10-12 years.”

The situation in Pikangikum highlights the complexities and challenges of First Nations policing and the related jurisdictional issues. So how did the system come to be — and in what ways do critics say it needs to change?

Policing in First Nations communities

First Nations in Ontario were policed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police until the 1960s, when the RCMP began to withdraw from Indigenous communities in Ontario and Quebec, a process completed in 1971.

Following a series of reviews of the federal government’s role in Indigenous policing, in 1991, Canada introduced the First Nations Policing Program, a discretionary program that provides funding for First Nations policing services through tripartite agreements between federal and provincial governments and First Nations leadership. According to statistics from Public Safety Canada, as of 2016, there were 12 FNPP agreements covering 104 First Nation communities in Ontario.

stretch of snow with a sunset
Pikangikum First Nation is located on the 1,808-hectare Pikangikum 14 Reserve. (Eric Bombicino)

These FNPP agreements include Six Nations Regional Policing Agreement, which authorizes Six Nations Police Service to police Six Nations of the Grand River, and the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service Agreement, which authorizes Nishnawbe Aski Police Service — the largest Indigenous police force in Canada — to police 34 First Nations communities across northern Ontario.

Another such agreement is called the Ontario First Nations Policing Agreement. Formally signed in 1992 by First Nations leaders and provincial and federal representatives, the OFNPA gives First Nations a variety of policing models to choose from. One option for First Nations under the OFNPA is to administer their own police force, either locally or regionally. Under the OFNPA, First Nations can also establish their own police force with support from the OPP or another First Nation’s police service, or they can choose to be policed directly by an existing municipal or regional police service or the OPP.Under the OFNPA, First Nations can also establish their own police force with support from the OPP or another First Nation’s police service, or they can choose to be policed directly by an existing municipal or regional police service or the OPP.

The OPP provides direct policing to 22 First Nations in the province, and it provides administrative and operational support for another 18 First Nations with their own police forces (including Pikangikum Police), a spokesperson for the OPP explained in a statement to TVO.org. The OPP also provides specialized support services, as required, for all First Nations in Ontario.

Pikangikum First Nation, with an on-reserve population of more than 3,000, operates the Pikangikum Police with support from the OPP. According to Hoppe, Pikangikum Police has five First Nations constables and one sergeant that are funded by the band and supported by the OPP — which provides a number of OPP officers, as well as administrative assistance and equipment and help with recruitment, training, coordinating, and consultation. Pikangikum also has 15 First Nations peacekeepers — community members who assist others by, for example, making check-ins and participating in search and rescues.

Challenges facing First Nations police services

Since the FNPP was introduced in the 1990s, 58 self-administered First Nations police forces (that is, police forces managed solely by First Nations) have been created, although 20 have subsequently disbanded, according to a 2015 research report published by Public Safety Canada.

The report found that many of the police services that had disbanded had been operational for less than a decade; on average, they had departments with five or fewer officers, policed communities of about 1,700 residents, and had an annual budget of $700,000. “Ultimately, it was discovered that these organizations suffered from both a ‘liability of newness’ and their diminutive size,” the report reads. The 38 police forces that survived employed an average of 22 police officers in communities of roughly 4,500 residents and had annual policing budgets of roughly $4 million.

Research also suggests that factors including high turnover rates, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of stable and consistent funding contribute to the high rates of failure among First Nations police forces.

Should First Nations policing be made an essential service?

First Nations policing has not been designated an essential service by the federal government. Such a designation would allow for consistent and predictable funding, and therefore long-term planning.

badge reading "Pikangikum Police"
Pikangikum Police has five First Nations
constables and one sergeant. (CreativeCommons.org/antefixus21)

For years, First Nations leaders have been calling on the government to pass legislation that would make First Nations policing an essential service. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tasked Bill Blair, the minister of Public Safety Canada and emergency preparedness, and Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services Canada, with developing a legislative framework that would recognize First Nations policing as an essential service. “Officials are actively engaging with provincial and territorial partners, the Assembly of First Nations, First Nations policing organizations and others, to lay the foundation for how we can co-develop federal legislation that will recognize First Nations policing as an essential service,” a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada said in a statement to TVO.org.

In 2018, the province passed the Safer Ontario Act, which allows First Nations policing services to opt into the Police Services Act, a move that would designate them an essential service and grant them the same protections as other police services in the province. But Erick Laming, a PhD candidate in criminology and sociolegal studies at University of Toronto, says that, for First Nations policing services in Ontario to see the full benefit of this legislation, including “long-term, guaranteed investment,” the federal government — which provides 52 per cent of funding under the FNPP — would have to pass similar legislation. “Once they legislate First Nations policing as essential in federal legislation, then you might have better options,” says Laming.

Future of policing in Pikangikum

Chief Dean Owen has said that his community intends to establish its own police service. “The more we talk, the more we are resolved to move as quickly as possible towards running our own standalone police services,” he said in a press release.

If the community were to go ahead with a standalone police force, Laming says, “It’s going to take a long time, and there’s a lot that goes into it. You have less support when you go standalone. You still have support, but it’s expected that you will do pretty much everything on your own. So, it’s a lot, especially if you’re unfamiliar with it.”

Pikangikum would also have the option, Laming says, to join forces with another police service, such as Lac Seul Police Service near Sioux Lookout or NAPS: “It might be the most attractive option right now, if they don’t want to start their own police force.”

Despite the challenges of establishing a standalone police service, Hoppe notes that the community is eager to take care of itself. “They have the people,” Hoppe says. “All they need is a bit of support, guidance, and resources to achieve that goal of helping them to take care of their own.”

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.

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