Policing your own community: Veteran officer on the challenge of training Quebec's Indigenous recruits

Ivan Gray, the officer in charge of training for the Indigenous program at Quebec's police academy in Nicolet, Que., sheds light on the challenges of recruiting and retaining Indigenous officers.

Mi'kmaq Ivan Gray of Listuguj, Que., brings 30 years of experience to work with future police officers

Ivan Gray has been training indigenous recruits at the École nationale de police du Québec since the program was launched in 2000. (submitted by ENPQ )

The Quebec provincial police force committed earlier this month to hiring Indigenous officers as part of a new community police force in Val-d"Or.

But recruiting, training and retaining Indigenous police officers remains a major challenge.

For the first time in 15 years, Quebec's police academy in Nicolet was forced to cancel its winter session for Indigenous students because of low enrolment.

It's just unbelievable, sometimes, the realities that these officers have to endure. I feel for them, I think about them a lot.- Ivan Gray

The specialized program at École nationale de police du Québec trains future police officers from Indigenous communities across the province. 

Ivan Gray has been the program co-ordinator and an instructor with the academy since 2000. Gray served as a police officer in his home community of Listiguj, a Mi'kmaq territory in the Gaspé.

Gray spoke to CBC Quebec about the challenges First Nations officers face, the training they receive and his own history as an Indigenous police officer in Listiguj.

What motivates young people to pursue a career in law enforcement?

One of the first questions I ask them is, "Why did you become a police officer?"

They let me know they want to make changes in their community. 

The École nationale de police du Québec has had to cancel its Indigenous training program this winter because of low enrolment. (submitted by ENPQ )

What makes the Indigenous training program unique?

What is a little different for my students is the ratio.

Many of the officers are going to communities that have four officers, six officers, 10. Per shift, they're occupying a policing load with two officers only.

When you compare that with other organizations, that's not the case. What we do here, is we have our officers do scenarios in solo operation rather than having a duo. So that is a bit of a difference that we do based on our groups to prep them for the reality they're going to be dealing with when they head home. 

How can you prepare officers to police their own communities?

I was fortunate enough not to have to deal with any of my family members while working, but it is the case in certain places — where officers do have to uphold the law, whether or not it's your brother, your sister, your father, mother. 

It's not a selling point for police officers, but they do end up doing the job. Or they'll ask another officer to assist in making the arrest and become back-up in that situation. It's not easy.

Why is retention such a challenge in Indigenous police forces?

Our job is simply training the officers for their upcoming task in First Nations communities.

Retaining is the department's responsibility. They're trying their best. It could be a question of salary, it could be a question of working conditions, equipment.

It's an issue today that's being addressed in many First Nations communities across Quebec, not only Quebec but Canada as well. 

The majority who do end up showing up in our academy after taking their police technology program already have it inside them that they want to do this.

An SQ car sits at the scene where police officer Thierry Leroux, 26, was shot dead earlier this year in Lac-Simon. Leroux was part of the local Indigenous police force. (Luc Berthiaume)

They are mature students that made a decision in their lives. They're in their 20s; some are in their 30s, with families with children already. That decision of becoming a police officer has been made long before they enter our doors here at the school.

The majority of members' families are proud that their officers are staying the communities, directors are trying to encourage officers to remain in First Nation communities.

Mind you, there are others who will take the advantage of going through another organization such as the Montreal police or the SQ. This is an issue, but it's a choice made by the officer and not by the community. 

Why was this winter's training session cancelled?

We have a decline. In my 16 years here at the school, I've never had to cancel a group, but that's economics.

Everywhere in the province of Quebec people are having a hard time with funding.

It's always a question of dollars and cents: they just can't afford to send students to school. That's unfortunate, but hopefully that will change.

Ada Chevrier of Timiskaming First Nation took part in a protest last month in Val-d'Or following allegations of abuse against SQ officers. Tension between the SQ and the local Indigenous community is high following the allegations. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

How did you make the journey from Listiguj to becoming a trainer in Nicolet?

I would say I probably experienced everything a police officer could experience in 14 years back home.

The academy at the time was looking for a First Nations officer to come work with a team of instructors already in place here for the First Nations training program.

I decided to give my name and it worked out. It was supposed to be for one year, and 16 years later, Mr. Gray is still at École nationale de police.

I think it's my calling. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy teaching police officers.

Have I seen a change in First Nations training and First Nations officers' qualities and so on and so forth? Yes. For the 16 years we definitely have a much better organization, directors are trained in management programs, and they're becoming business-oriented when it comes to First Nations communities. And they're working hard to make changes in First Nations communities.

The training program for Indigenous recruits lasts 15 weeks and covers all aspects of the job including physical intervention, shooting and issuing tickets. (submitted by ENPQ )

It's a partnership. The students are getting better, the directors are getting better. I see it in terms of myself here, I had to make some changes, adaptations to our training program to upgrade certain elements. They're getting a first-hand knowledge from a First Nations individual. 

What's it like to train officers in First Nations communities?

I go to all the communities.

It's just unbelievable, sometimes, the realities that these officers have to endure. I feel for them, I think about them a lot.

We had two officers who lost their lives in First Nations communities, Steve Déry and Thierry LeRoux.

It's something we take to heart. It touches me as a co-ordinator for training, knowing we had our first casualties in First Nations.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

with files from Julia Page