Plan for Indigenous officers in Val-d'Or highlights police recruitment challenges

The Sûreté du Québec's plan to assign more Indigenous officers to its post in Val-d'Or in the wake of police abuse allegations is being met with skepticism by some Indigenous leaders.

Few Indigenous people aspire to career with Sûreté du Québec, First Nations police forces, says expert

A Quebec human rights commission report released in 2015 found that the Sûreté du Québec fails to properly represent visible minorities and people from ethnic communities in its police force. (Sûreté du Québec)

The Quebec provincial police plan to bring more Indigenous officers to Val-d'Or in the wake of police abuse allegations in that community is being met with skepticism by some Indigenous leaders — highlighting the recruitment challenges facing police.

The new station will be devoted to "community policing" and will be staffed by a combination of Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officers and officers from Indigenous police forces.

Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, said there's already a shortage of Indigenous police officers working on First Nations reserves, so it will be difficult to fill new positions.

"If there's no extra funding coming from somewhere, then definitely the proposal is going to fall short," he told CBC Radio's Daybreak.

Ada Chevrier of Timiskaming First Nation took part in a Val-d'Or protest earlier this month over the allegations of abuse against SQ officers. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Financial help for training

The Quebec government took a step in that direction last week, making changes aimed at encouraging more Indigenous youth and visible minorities to work as police officers.

Higher Education Minister Hélène David committed to eliminating a $17,500 fee for the 900-hour police training program offered to Indigenous students at the CEGEP vocational college in Alma, north of Quebec City, a spokesperson confirmed to CBC News.

The program is a fast-track route into the provincial police academy in Nicolet.

Still, problems of perception and a lack of education funding present major hurdles in encouraging more Indigenous people to join both Quebec and First Nations police forces, experts say.

27 Indigenous officers in SQ

The SQ had a total of 27 Indigenous police officers in 2015, one more than a year earlier, according to its latest annual report.

An analysis by CBC earlier this year found minorities woefully under-represented in Quebec police forces, particularly within the SQ.

Between 2007 and March 2015, the SQ hired 735 new police officers. Only five of them were from what it calls "cultural communities" — visible or ethnic minorities — as represented on this pie chart:

Indigenous police forces, which patrol many First Nations communities, are also underfunded and understaffed in Quebec. 

For instance, the band-run police force in the small Algonquin community of Lac-Simon, just south of Val-d'Or, only has the capacity to patrol during the day. The SQ assists the police force at night and on the weekends.

First Nations forces also have trouble finding trained Indigenous officers. Thierry LeRoux, 26, the officer shot and killed in February while responding to a domestic dispute, was a recent recruit to the Lac-Simon force but was not Aboriginal.

Shortage of applicants

Pierre Saint-Antoine, director of communications at Nicolet's École nationale de police du Québec, acknowledged there's room for improvement when it comes to recruitment.

He stressed, however, that "it's not the responsibility of the Quebec police academy to recruit or to promote [a] career in Aboriginal police services, but we think it's important." 

This year, there was a shortage of applicants for the academy's 15-week program specifically designed for those planning to work in First Nations communities, he said.

In Nicolet's general program, fewer than one per cent of students are Indigenous. 

Representation not 'magic bullet'

There are a number of reasons Indigenous people are less likely to seek a police career, said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a professor at the University of Toronto who has studied the relationship between race and the justice system.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah says there are a number of factors dissuading minorities from applying to work as police.
Owusu-Bempah said many Indigenous people have a low regard for the job, based on the experiences of members in their own communities.

He cautioned, as well, that "representation is not the magic bullet."

Even if more Indigenous people join Quebec police officers, the underlying issues contributing to a strained relationship between the community and police, such as higher-than-average poverty rates, still need to be addressed, he said in an interview.

Funding shortage

Dwayne Zachary, chief of the Kahnawake Mohawk Peacekeepers, the agency in charge of policing in that community, said First Nations forces face other recruitment challenges as well, with officers in small communities having to patrol their own relatives and neighbours.

"A lot of people in First Nations communities don't want to go into policing because they are going to be policing their own people," he said.

Zachary, who is also president of the Canada-wide First Nations Chiefs of Police Association, said the turmoil in Val-d'Or points to the need for more Indigenous police officers.

He said the Kahnawake Peacekeepers police service, established in 1979, has benefited from being an integral part of the community.

"We want people to know who we are. We're not just someone who rides around in a patrol car," he said.

with files from Alison Northcott and Daybreak