Lack of police services in the north a concern for MMIW families in N.L.

Imagine calling 911 and having someone answer in a language you might not fully understand, over 800 kilometres away.

Labrador residents say 911 calls redirected to St. John's, in English

Deidre Marie Michelin and one of her four children. (Supplied by Michelin family)

Imagine calling 911 and having someone answer in a language you might not fully understand, over 800 kilometres away.

That's the reality for many Indigenous people in remote areas of Labrador.

During pre-MMIW inquiry talks in 2016, family members and survivors from Rigolet, Labrador told Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett that local RCMP calls in the north are often redirected to the St. John's RCMP detachment. 

In Newfoundland and Labrador, many people may speak Innu-aimun and Inuktitut languages. 

At the time, Bennett said the government will immediately address some of these issues without having to wait for the inquiry to finish. 

Murder-suicide, no local police services

Charlotte Wolfrey, 65, is not as optimistic.

Her daughter, Deidre Marie Michelin, 21, was a mother of four living in her hometown of Rigolet, a coastal Inuit community.

She was shot and killed in a murder-suicide by her then-partner, Jobe Wolfrey, on Jan. 20, 1993.

All four children were home the night their mother was killed. Her oldest daughter, five at the time, woke up to the sound of gunshots and discovered her mother lying on the floor. She took her three-year-old sister to run for help.

"My daughter was calling for help all day, and she had to call in Goose Bay and she couldn't get any help," says Wolfrey about Deidre calling the RCMP.

The town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay is approximately 160 kilometres away from Rigolet.

"The police said until he does something our hands our tied, we can't do anything."

At the time of her daughter's death, there was no RCMP detachment in Rigolet. 

"It was after my daughter was killed that me and another woman basically took up the fight to fight for policing for our communities," says Wolfrey.

For more than a decade after, Wolfrey advocated for better police protection in her community.

Finally the Rigolet detachment was established on August 2006 and is currently staffed with two police officers and one community constable.

Getting rerouted 

After work hours and even sometimes during the day, Wolfrey says she has trouble getting the RCMP in Rigolet on the phone. 

Instead calls get rerouted to St. John's, N.L.'s capital and largest city.

"You have to tell someone what the emergency is, if you speak English," says Wolfrey.

"But if you speak Inuktitut, then you're gonna have to talk to someone in English because there's no translator."

According to the Newfoundland and Labrador RCMP, there are few language barriers. Calls are rerouted to what's called their Operation Communications Centre (OCC) if no one is in the office. In emergency cases, calls can be received through the provincial 911 systems, in this case in the capital. 

On the line

Jennifer Hefler-Elson, executive director at the Labrador Friendship Centre, believes the call-forwarding is a cost-cutting measure with potential consequences.

"If someone was hurting you're lucky if you can make a phone call at all. Being on the phone longer jeopardizes the safety of the woman or the person," says Hefler-Elson. 

"Being on the line and trying to explain where you are is worse."

When CBC News asked Indigenous and Northern Affairs what is being done to address the issue of calls getting rerouted from Rigolet to St. John's, the request was referred to the Public Safety department.

A response from Public Safety said the minister cannot comment on operational matters, but stated it is up to the provinces and municipalities to establish the level of resources, budget and policing priorities in consultation with the RCMP.


Originally from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) located in northwestern Ontario, Martha Troian is an investigative journalist who frequently contributes to CBC News, including work on the multiple award-winning and ongoing Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Follow her @ozhibiiige