The challenges facing Aboriginal police forces across Canada are playing out in a northern Ontario city today.
First Nations chiefs are gathering in Kenora to talk about the future of policing in the Treaty Three area of northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba. The police board says it can't afford to pay its officers and is planning to shut down.
The Treaty Three Police Service is responsible for law enforcement in more than two dozen First Nation communities.
It says it doesn't want to fold, but government underfunding makes it impossible to pay a wage equal to the Ontario Provincial Police — a gain the First Nations officers won in their most recent collective agreement.
"The fact that they were paid lower was a form of discrimination," said Sharon DeSousa, who speaks for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union representing the officers.
DeSousa said negotiations with the Treaty Three Police Services Board have broken down.
"What we really would like to do is have the police board rescind their decision to close the doors."
But the board said it has no choice if the union doesn't budge.
Desousa said police officers and concerned community members will rally at the board's annual general meeting in Kenora on Tuesday morning, and call for talks to resume under a mediator.
"Right now we want to make sure that First Nation policing continues and that the police service that's being used is culturally appropriate," she said. "And I can tell by the community outcry that they want the same goal as well."
The chief of Nigigoonsiminkanning First Nation — and a new member of the board — said he believes the Treaty Three police force can still be saved.
"The police officers need to be ... exposed to the ... negotiations that ... go on with the federal government," Gary Allen said.
Aboriginal policing is a critical service, Allen noted, and the government must step up funding so First Nations officers are paid the same as their non-Aboriginal colleagues.
"Our employees continue to be marginalized, even though they graduate from the same institutions as mainstream Canadians," he said.