'Exercising our sovereignty': Opaskwayak Cree Nation transitions to First Nations-run police service

Opaskwayak Cree Nation, until now policed by the RCMP, is making the switch to a First Nations-led police service.

Chief cites response times, job opportunities for switch from RCMP policing to First Nations service

Opaskwayak Cree Nation Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair says the First Nation's RCMP detachment was was often unstaffed and reponse times were slow. 'When the people are wanting better service because they feel it's lacking, then as leadership, we've got to make those changes,' he said. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Opaskwayak Cree Nation will soon make the switch to a First Nations-led police service.

Opaskwayak Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair said the Manitoba First Nations Police Service will oversee the new OCN detachment. Sinclair said it will take a proactive approach in Opaskwayak that includes engaging with schools, meeting with leadership and educating the community.

"It's really just exercising our sovereignty and our ability to move forward and make decisions on our terms," said Sinclair.

Since 2005, Opaskwayak — about 525 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg — has been policed by the RCMP under a tripartite agreement between the Crown, the province and the community.

A new agreement to continue the partnership was signed annually until the latest one expired on March 31.

Sinclair said the transition will take up to six months.

Manitoba First Nations Police Service Insp. Dave Scott said he has already had interest from people in Opaskwayak about getting involved with the new police service.

The Manitoba First Nations Police Service, formerly known as the Dakota Ojibway Police Service, is headquartered on Long Plain and already provides policing in six Indigenous communities in the province. (Manitoba First Nations Police)

Scott said when people who live on a reserve are involved in its policing, it creates a force better equipped to respond to the community's needs.

"A lot of them understand the cultures and traditions of their community," said Scott. "We have members that speak the language too, which is very vital."

Of the 36 current members of the police service working in six other First Nations communities across the province, about 70 per cent are First Nations, he said.

Slow RCMP response times: chief

Sinclair said the RCMP detachment in Opaskwayak was defined by slow response times, and that its office in the community was often unstaffed.

"When the people are wanting better service because they feel it's lacking, then as leadership, we've got to make those changes," said Sinclair.

The RCMP detachment in Opaskwayak consists of seven police officers and one support staffer, an RCMP spokesperson said in an email to CBC News. That number dropped to six officers when one retired last fall, they said.

"When the RCMP officers that are on shift are dealing with an investigation, there may not be anyone at the detachment after hours or on weekends," the spokesperson said.

"RCMP officers are always available via dispatch if a member of the public needs police assistance."

In 2018, the Opaskwayak detachment responded to over 2,700 calls for service, the spokesperson said.

While the move will see the RCMP sent out of Opaskwayak, Sinclair said he offered the force a chance to return to the community — not to oversee policing, but to watch the new team working and learn how to better serve First Nations communities.

"We've left that door open for them," Sinclair said. "There's an opportunity ... to work together."

Detachment will include 8 to 12 officers

Sinclair said the new detachment is expected to include between eight and 12 officers, which will create jobs for the 6,200-member community. The office of the Onekanew told CBC News there are 3,300 people living on the reserve and 2,900 who live off-reserve.

Sinclair said the switch to a police service run and staffed by First Nations people also provides the community a sense of comfort.

"They've grown up and lived here, and they know the challenges and the issues that come with being in a First Nations community," said Sinclair.

"Sometimes you get a police officer that comes from downtown Toronto, pops right into an Indigenous community and they have no cultural awareness or any understanding."

The Manitoba First Nations Police Service, formerly known as the Dakota Ojibway Police Service, has been operating for 42 years.

It also serves six other First Nations across Southern Manitoba, including the Birdtail Sioux, Canupawakpa Dakota, Long Plain, Roseau River, Sandy Bay and Waywayseecappo communities.