Indigenous crisis teams to replace police on mental health checks in Scarborough pilot project

Indigenous-led crisis response teams will do mental health calls and wellness checks instead of police officers as part of a new pilot project in the works in Scarborough.

Native Child and Family Services will submit a report on the pilot to the city this month

Family and friends of Regis Korchinski-Paquet release doves outside of the apartment building where she lived at 100 High Park Ave. for her memorial on July 25, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Indigenous-led crisis response teams will replace police officers on mental health calls and wellness checks as part of a new pilot project in the works in Scarborough.

The Native Child and Family Services of Toronto will design and run the pilot in the Kingston and Galloway roads area with the support of Toronto Police and community-based health groups.

"When a member of our community sees a uniformed officer there's an intergenerational impact that occurs and that traumatizing reaction can really change the way that encounter goes," said Jeffrey Schiffer, executive director at Native Child and Family Services Toronto. He added that RCMP's role historically was to control and displace Indigenous people.

Schiffer said all levels of government have acknowledged that systemic racism in policing exists and that a disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people are not only in the criminal justice system, but also have a higher incidence of fatal encounters with police.

Jeffrey Schiffer‏, with Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, ( Joe Fiorino/CBC)

There have been widespread calls this year to defund the police after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of an officer in Minnesota, and here in Toronto, the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet — a 29-year old woman who was Black, Indigenous and Ukrainian. She fell to her death from her apartment balcony after uniformed police arrived to do a mental health check.

"We are finally seeing the political will to change that to achieve different outcomes," said Schiffer, who is of Métis and German ancestry, and was born and raised in unceded Coast Salish territory in what is now Vancouver, B.C. 

"We do recognize that in certain circumstances police involvement is required and when required we would then have a mechanism to notify police and have them involved," he said.

Regis Korchinski-Paquet died at age 29 after police were called to her apartment in Toronto. (Newediuk Funeral Home)

But in cases where police are not necessary, culturally-trained clinicians from Native Child and other Indigenous organizations.will carry out wellness checks, and deal with mental health crises, domestic violence and other disputes. 

Native Child will submit a report on the pilot plan to the City of Toronto this month for approval and proposed funding by all levels of government. Crisis teams could be up and running by the spring.

Erick Laming, a doctoral student in criminology at the University of Toronto, has researched police use of force and accountability, particularly when Indigenous or Black people are involved.

He said unarmed first responders who are not in a police uniform may be able to de-escalate some of the situations that have often gone wrong with police. 

Erick Laming is from the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation in eastern Ontario. The PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto focuses on police use of force, police oversight and Indigenous and Black community members' experiences with the police. (Erick Laming)

"Those individuals are able to understand better, maybe have a little more patience with a lot of different problems, issues that are going on," said Laming, a member of the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation in eastern Ontario.

"And especially if they're plain-clothed or not armed, it can also have a calming effect ...They would be perceived as somebody who's there to help them, to listen to them and not judge them or pull them into the criminal justice system."

In an email to CBC News, Toronto Police Service (TPS) spokesperson Meaghan Gray said it actively supports the pilot project and that "in the appropriate circumstance, a community-based response can not only allow for police to be where the public needs them the most but can achieve better results for all communities."

She said while the project is in the research and development phase, 43 Division will be helping if called upon for support in the Indigenous communities in Gabriel Dumont Non-Profit Homes and the surrounding areas.

"Given the calls for the reallocation of funding from the TPS to community agencies, this is the ideal time for a partnership like this to consider new and innovative ways of delivering mental health, victim services, and community safety responses." 


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.