A northern Saskatchewan community dealing with violence and gang crime is employing a team of security officers to ramp up patrols — a move that's being welcomed by the local RCMP.

The community of Pelican Narrows, about 415 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, is training eight new employees to become "peacekeeper" officers.

Harold Linklater, a Pelican Narrows councillor and vice-chief of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, said it is partly a response to violence involving "wannabe gangs."

"We always seem to wait until something bad happens and then we react," said Linklater.

"Now, a lot of people have expressed, 'Well, we should try to do something. We can't keep letting this escalate and go on like this. We have to try to do something about it ourselves.'"

Prosecutor describes 'gang war'

Last week, the Crown prosecutor in the case against seven people accused in the death of Hilliard Sewap Jr. in 2015 said there is currently a "gang war" in the community. 

Fran Atkinson told The Canadian Press last week that Sewap's death had increased hostilities between two groups known in Pelican Narrows as the Wong-Streeters and Bronxers.

'They're not carrying any firearms or anything to that effect. Our peacekeepers are merely there to keep the peace.' - Philip Chief, Onion Lake Cree Nation

She added that the assault happened the day after government cheques arrived in the community, which she said regularly leads to a spike in alcohol consumption and subsequent violence.

Linklater also noted the connection between violence and alcohol abuse.

Although the peacekeeper officers will not be allowed to respond to incidents where their safety could be at risk, it is hoped they can help address violent crime by acting as mediators to prevent disputes from escalating.

The officers will also be patrolling the streets at night to deter criminal behaviour and act as additional eyes and ears for the police.

"That's where these peacekeepers would come in, you know, is to kind of look out for stuff like that," said Linklater.

"Because we can't depend on the RCMP all the time — they may not be around or may not be on patrol.

"If something like that were to happen at least they'll have a number where you can call and then kind of monitor the situation while they're waiting."

Pelican Narrows map

Pelican Narrows is in northeast Saskatchewan, about 284 kilometres northeast of Prince Albert. (Google Maps)

Program aiming for faster response times 

Linklater added that the peacekeeper officers will be first-responders who can be contacted directly for a quick response to incidents such as fires or traffic accidents.

He said the goal of creating the team is also to increase response times in situations where the peacekeepers can assist.

They will also be working to crack down on bootlegging in Pelican Narrows, which is a dry community, and supporting police with traffic incidents.

He said language was another way the peacekeepers will be able to help quell disputes.

"They can communicate better in, say, a highly tense situation, for example, to calm down people because they can speak the Cree language better," said Linklater.

He said the rules and boundaries for the peacekeeper officers, which are still being finalized, will be very clear to prevent any interference with police work.

RCMP welcomes program

Pelican Narrows RCMP Staff Sgt. Dean Lerat is optimistic the new program will lead to positive changes.

He said he would not want peacekeepers to be involved in any aspect of responding to violent crime because that is a police responsibility.

But he believes that an increased security presence on the streets at night could help reduce violence.

Lerat is a Cree man from the Cowessess First Nation in southeast Saskatchewan, which already has a peacekeeping program.  

"From my community, and knowing from my family all the good things that they've done there, I already have a little bias with the program knowing that it works well," said Lerat.

"So I'm going to ensure that all members in Pelican Narrows learn to appreciate the extra eyes and ears that are out on the road for us."

Onion Lake says peacekeepers a success

Onion Lake Cree Nation has been running a peacekeeper program in various forms for about 18 years.

Philip Chief, associate director of operations, said the number of people employed by the program, which encompasses security, fire services and dog control, has grown from five to 11.

Although he said police did have some reservations before the program started, there had never been any problems with peacekeepers interfering with police work.

"They've always worked collaboratively together, knowing exactly what the roles and boundaries are," said Chief.

He said the peacekeepers are able to respond to emergencies faster than police, whose dispatch process goes through 911.  

'I think when you talk to people from your own community, you also have an understanding and you know who the family is, and that sets a little bit of comfort in the discussion.' - Philip Chief

Onion Lake residents can contact the peacekeepers through a direct line.

He said one example of how the peacekeepers can help save lives was by arriving early to the scene of car accidents.

In one instance, peacekeepers pulled a person from a burning car before other emergency services got to the scene of the crash, Chief added.

But he said peacekeepers are not allowed to go into violent situations involving weapons.

"They're not carrying any firearms or anything to that effect. Our peacekeepers are merely there to keep the peace, in a lot of instances for domestic disputes or whatever it is that may occur," said Chief. 

"Once it gets a little heavy, obviously RCMP are involved."

Chief added that there are situations where the peacekeepers can help reduce tension because they are longtime members of the community.

"I think when you talk to people from your own community, you also have an understanding and you know who the family is, and that sets a little bit of comfort in the discussion ... preventing further action by the perpetrator," said Chief.  

"Whereas the other end, you have a police officer, they don't know anything about our community members to a certain degree, especially when you get new assigned officers. You tend to have that natural fear apparently, you know — that's been common around First Nation country."

Program creates opportunities

Chief said the program has not only improved public safety, but created skills training and employment opportunities at Onion Lake.

He said some peacekeeper officers have gone on to be employed as police officers because they have the relevant training.

The First Nation is now in the process of creating its own police force.

Chief said he thinks more communities should have a youth cadet program, something he hopes Pelican Narrows will consider as it finalizes its plans for the peacekeeper program.

He said it will also be important for the community leadership to maintain positive attitudes toward the peacekeeper program, saying it should be an honour for the officers to serve their own communities.

With files from The Canadian Press