The James Smith Cree Nation tragedy reveals the critical need for First Nations-led policing

The tragedy in the James Smith Cree Nation has opened our eyes to the utter lack of safety provided to First Nations people on-reserve.

This is an opportunity for First Nations to do something different

A sign welcomes people to the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

This Opinion piece is by André Bear, a recent law student graduate, former youth representative of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations National Youth Council.

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The tragedy in the James Smith Cree Nation has opened our eyes to the utter lack of safety provided to First Nations people on-reserve.

A man with a knife was able to murder 10 people and severely harm 18, including innocent children, before fleeing the police for three days.

This doesn't make any sense. How could this ever be possible with the advances and investments in law enforcement that we see today?

If you want an answer to that question, just ask someone who lives on the reserve and has waited hours for the RCMP to respond to an emergency call. 

Many people living in rural areas, Indigenous or not, can relate to these long wait times. This is why the RCMP will sometimes have agreements with local people to respond to crisis calls until officers arrive. 

Lydia "Gloria" Burns was one of these people. She was an addictions counsellor who responded to one of the calls on James Smith. Her life was taken, along with other members of her family. 

Gloria was known as a kind and loving woman who put the needs of others before herself. She proved that when she responded to that call.

We cannot deny that her death and many others might have been prevented if law enforcement was readily available to the James Smith Cree Nation.

Woman with braided hair and blue shirt sitting in chair
Lydia 'Gloria' Burns, 61, is remembered by her family as a 'very caring person.' (Saskatchewan Coroners Service/RCMP)

A monumental announcement

In 2020, the prime minister announced he was going to declare policing an essential service for First Nations in Canada. He promised legislation that included statutory funding for First Nations to develop their own policing services.

This announcement was monumental. It meant that for the first time tribal policing on the reserve would become a reality for First Nations. This could ensure our people's safety with appropriate response times.

Take the Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation, located 100 kilometres west of Meadow Lake, Sask. They do not have cellular service and their police response time is roughly one to two hours. In recent meetings with the federal government, their chief and council even went as far as to say that when their people called the RCMP for help, they never came at all.

The Ministikwan chief and council proceeded to tell government officials that gangs and drug dealers are running the community without any fear of law enforcement.

After the meeting, I was involved in submitting a proposal requesting $250,000 to build a cabin to be used as an RCMP detachment to put the community at ease. 

This proposal was denied.

There are countless First Nations like Ministikwan Lake out there, with elders afraid to leave their homes and feeling like the rest of the world has forgotten about them.

A mourner holds a candle at a vigil remembering the victims of a mass stabbing incident at James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, Sask., in front of city hall in Prince Albert, Sask., on Sept. 7. (Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press)

First Nations deserve to feel safe on-reserve

After the horrific events in the James Smith Cree Nation, I hope we can prove to First Nations people in Canada that they deserve to feel safe, even when they live on-reserve.

This is possible if the prime minister makes good on his promise to provide statutory funding for First Nations to establish tribal police.

This doesn't mean we need to mimic the broken legal system that continues to over-incarcerate our people. It doesn't mean we need to continue brutalizing people of colour, and perpetuating the same racism that infects the RCMP.

This is an opportunity for First Nations to do something different.

It doesn't need to be an entirely new system. Instead, we can revitalize something older than Canada itself.

Our warrior societies enforced high standards

First Nations once had warrior societies that enforced Indigenous legal principles and protected our people from harm. Our warrior societies enforced a very high standard of respect. We were not plagued by poverty, addictions and incarceration the way we are today.

Even though these issues are complicated, it is clear that without law enforcement or some form of a warrior society, crime is going to fester.

Now is the time to truly consider what it means to "serve and protect," inspired by the heroic acts of first responders like Lydia "Gloria" Burns, and how she fought to defend her people on the James Smith Cree Nation.

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André Bear

Freelance contributor

André Bear, B.Ed, J.D. (He/Him) is a Nêhîyaw (Plains-Cree) educator and advocate of inherent and treaty rights. He’s a Juris Doctor graduate from the University of Saskatchewan and is now pursuing his master of laws. At 21 years of age, André was appointed as an advisor to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Canada for the implementation of TRC Call to Action 66.