How one Métis woman is trying to bolster relations between Indigenous communities and the Saskatoon police
Angela Daigneault says police officers need to be sensitive to culture, colonization and trauma
Angela Daigneault crushes up sage leaves between her hands and puts them in a smudge bowl in the Saskatoon Police Service's cultural room. She then reaches into a medicine box and takes out sweetgrass, loose tobacco and a beaded eagle feather gifted to the police force by an elder.
The cultural room is unlike any other in the station — it has the proper ventilation to host smudging and pipe ceremonies.
It's where Daigneault, a Métis woman with roots running to Ile-a-la-Crosse and Outlook, helps the police force engage with elders, knowledge keepers and cultural advisors in her role as the SPS Indigenous relations consultant.
Daigneault spent more than a decade in social work, but then followed in her father's footsteps and joined the Saskatoon police. Her father was one of the first Métis officers on the force.
But Daigneault is not an officer. For almost four years, she's been the only civilian in the police's equity and cultural engagement unit. The unit has expanded from two officers to three constables, a sergeant and Daigneault.
"We're really about connecting the community to the police service and starting to sort of build bridges between the community and ourselves. We knew that relationships were struggling," Daigneault told CBC News.
The Saskatoon Police Service has recognized it must overcome some history. Three decades ago, 17-year-old Neil Stonechild froze to death after it was alleged two police officers abandoned him outside the city.
This was one of several similar reports that became known as the "starlight tours," where members of the police service would allegedly drive Indigenous people to the city's outskirts in the dead of winter and abandon them.
There's still, I think, a fear or misunderstanding of the [police] service.- Angela Daigneault
Part of Daigneault's job is to share SPS services with Indigenous communities and ask for their advice on how they can do better to support Indigenous peoples.
Daigneault says the police force's work is informed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action related to justice, including call 30 to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in custody and call 40 about Indigenous-specific victim programs and services.
Colonization and trauma
Daigneault also looks for ways the police force can improve internally.
She says her role evolved when the world faced a reckoning with the Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter movements.
"My job has sort of gone from just that relationship building to also that deeper, 'What are we looking at within our systems and our institutions and our policy and everything? How do we do better in those?'" Daigneault said.
Daigneault, alongside the equity and cultural engagement unit, holds regular in-service training with new recruits, and provides advice on training that is culturally-sensitive and connected to community.
"There's still, I think, a fear or misunderstanding of the [police] service," Daigneault said.
"I think oftentimes people mention [SPS is] a police force, and I always try to correct them and say it's a service because we're actually a service to the Saskatoon community."
She says rebuilding trust between Indigenous communities and the police hinges on officers being sensitive to culture, colonization and trauma.
Daigneault says officers are learning about what land acknowledgements mean, cultural practices such as smudging, as well as the lasting legacy of the residential school system and intergenerational trauma.
She says some officers are in an "unlearning and relearning process," discovering Indigenous history that was never taught to them in school.
"You can really see some are really hungry for that, wanting to learn more so we're constantly putting out resources," Daigneault said.
She says this knowledge is necessary to be an officer in Saskatoon.
"That has to be just as a critical tool as anything else because that is going to provide that empathy and that lens of compassion," she said.
"'What is the trauma that I'm seeing?' As opposed to, 'What's wrong with this person?'"
She says it can be "very narrow" for officers to only think from the lens of their lived experience.
"We have to know the folks that we are working with and serving our community," she said. "And a lot of that is, like I said, the trauma-informed perspective, recognizing the trauma that came from the colonial effects of our country being put in place."
Daigneault says the SPS is moving in the right path — but that the journey is not over.
Among other things, she hopes to see more civilians like her on the force.
Called to Action: Stories of Reconciliation features individuals and groups across the province who are embracing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action. Themes range from language to justice, putting the spotlight on local efforts and the people leading them. Read more Called to Action stories here.