A joint squad of RCMP, Quebec provincial police and aboriginal officers is fighting organized crime in native communities and helping boost the skills of aboriginal police.

"We have contacts in all the communities," said Robert St-Jules, the RCMP staff sergeant in charge of operations for the Montreal-based Aboriginal Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit.

St-Jules said aboriginal communities are of interest to organized crime groups because in some cases they allow easy crossing between Canada and the United States and touch other provinces.

"The intelligence clearly demonstrates that the different organizational [crime] elements within the province use the geographic location of the communities," he said.

Cpl. Francis McDougall, assistant chief of the 10-member Kitigan-Zibi police force in western Quebec, agreed.

"It seems like organized criminal activities are always trying to infiltrate the First Nations reserves," he said. "You not only see it here but [in] other First Nations communities. I'd say it's a big problem all over the place."

Task force posts promising record

The unit has recorded some big busts since its inception in 2005.

Forty-five people were arrested on drug charges in its first operation — code-named "Crystal" — in 2005, which took down a Hells Angels-linked scheme to send drugs to the Far North from Montreal by mail.

"Operation Concert," which hit Kitigan-Zibi and the surrounding area a year later, saw the roundup of 26 people on 113 charges, including drug production and trafficking to the United States.

"Cleopatra" in 2006 saw about 35 people arrested in Kanesatake, Montreal and Sherbrooke while "Operation Cancun," earlier this year, had 29 people from three native communities and Montreal in handcuffs on 90 charges.

St-Jules said $2.6 million was seized in that case, along with a variety of drugs and 24 firearms, including a grenade launcher.

A case can be sparked either by the unit or from information received from an aboriginal police force, many of whom have had officers serving with the unit on a rotational basis.

"We gather all the intelligence and then we decide as a unit which [criminal] organization we're going to investigate strategically," St-Jules said. "The biggest thing that we look at is the impact that that investigation will have. That's very important for us."

Drugs are a major problem in First Nations communities and have been a focus for the unit, which McDougall appreciates.

"The benefit is keeping the drugs out of the community, keeping our community safe, keeping the drugs away from our children," he said in a telephone interview.

"There's so much out there now, new drugs coming up. It's unbelievable what these drugs can do to kids."

Mohawk conflicts give rise to force

The unit operates only in Quebec and is commanded by a provincial police officer.

It was created after a standoff on the Kanesatake Mohawk reserve in 2004, which was sparked when aboriginal police were brought in from elsewhere to clean up local crime.

The officers had to barricade themselves in the police station while they were surrounded and the band chief's house was burned down.

There are seven First Nations in 53 communities in Quebec, ranging from central reserves like Kahnawake near Montreal to tiny villages in the north.

Besides fighting crime and giving assistance to local First Nations investigations, the unit is a trading post of skills.

"They come and teach us their culture and we teach them different things on how to investigate organized crime," St-Jules said of the collaboration between non-aboriginal and aboriginal investigators.

"It's crucial. These investigations couldn't have been done without the integration of everybody. Everybody brings something to the table."

Officers take know-how back home

McDougall said the training is a boon for officers in small police forces.

"These guys we send for training bring back their expertise and inform the other officers," he said.

"They come back and they have a different perspective on how things operate, on certain ways of dealing with stuff."

McDougall noted that aboriginal police departments are usually small and lack the resources and manpower of a specialized task force.