Underfunded and under-resourced, Indigenous police services struggle with MMIWG cases

Three reports published this year call on structural and funding changes to Indigenous policing as many forces struggle to meet their communities' safety and security needs.

'The First Nations Policing Program sets us up to fail,' says Dwayne Zacharie, police chief in Kahnawake

The family of Tiffany Morrison has three billboards in Kahnawake, Que., asking for information on her death. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Chronic underfunding and a lack of resources and access to training has hampered the ability of Indigenous police forces to properly investigate violence against Indigenous women and girls.

It's one of the many findings of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and something Melanie Morrison knows all too well.

The Mohawk woman of Kahnawake, Que., has been working over the last decade to improve how the Kahnawake Mohawk Peacekeepers, a First Nations police force serving her community, handles MMIWG cases after she felt her sister's disappearance was mishandled.

Morrison's younger sister Tiffany, 24, was last seen on June 18, 2006 in the LaSalle area of Montreal, before getting into a taxi with a man. She never made it home.

Morrison said her family were the ones knocking on doors, interviewing her friends, and tracking down her last whereabouts rather than the police. The missing persons file was only opened 16 days later. 

"That's how long it took them to take it seriously," said Morrison.

"We had to basically demand that a file be opened. They took the information but that was about it. They were convinced she would be back."

Family and friends gather in 2016 near the Honore Mercier Bridge in Kahnawake, the site where Tiffany Morrison's remains were found in 2010. (CBC)

Four years after Tiffany disappeared, her remains were found in a wooded area at the foot of the Honoré Mercier Bridge that connects LaSalle with Kahnawake. The homicide case remains open with the Sûreté du Québec, and Morrison said the family's relationship with the Peacekeepers has improved.

"They've changed and adapted so that they have proper protocol in place so that that won't happen to somebody else when they report somebody missing. They won't be meeting those same walls that we did," said Morrison.

Dwayne Zacharie, chief of police at the Kahnawake Mohawk Peacekeepers, said his officers have made big steps to change how they deal with all aspects of policing in their community but also face challenges with resources, funding, and access to training under the First Nations Policing Program.

"We definitely would do more," he said. 

"We don't always get it right but we're always looking to improve and to get better and to be able to provide our community and anyone in our territory with a professional service."

'The First Nations Policing Program sets us up to fail'

Unlike non-Indigenous communities across Canada where policing operates as an essential service, under the First Nations Policing Program funding agreements are negotiated between the communities, Public Safety Canada, and the province. 

Twenty-two Indigenous police forces operate under the program in Quebec that serve 44 First Nations communities and Inuit villages across the province. The Peacekeepers, a force of 36, has been funded through the program since 1995.

"The First Nations Policing Program sets us up to fail," said Zacharie, who is also the president of the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association.

"Throwing money at something is one thing, but just because you put extra dollars in something doesn't mean you're going to fix things. We need to look at staffing, training, resourcing, and infrastructure.

"So many First Nations police services are taxed to the 10th degree and are out there working constantly. Some places don't have enough staff to respond to the issues."

The Kahnawake Peacekeepers have 36 officers with its police force, including two investigators. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

He said burnout is a regular issue for his officers. The current size of the force, which expanded this year, is still not enough to meet the needs of Kahnawake's population of 10,000 and the 100,000 vehicles a day that pass through the community to access the Island of Montreal via the Mercier Bridge. 

Access to timely training for officers in English has also been a challenge. Zacharie said he once waited eight years for the École nationale de police du Québec to provide training on securing a crime scene and fingerprinting, until the Peacekeepers decided to go somewhere out of province.

Other times, he was told he'd have to wait on material to be translated in English, and a minimum of eight to 15 officers would need to sign up for the course in order for it to be cost-effective.

"How could I ever send 15 people? We also have a duty to staff our community so that our community is safe and secure. If I sent 15, that's nearly half the entire police service," said Zacharie.

In order to meet the department's training needs, Zacharie said he's sent officers to Regina, Ottawa, and even as far as Florida.

"Of course it's an extra cost," said Zacharie.

"It makes us feel like there's not really an interest to provide us with the training."

Quebec's Viens Commission on relations between Indigenous Peoples and certain public services called on the province's police academy to offer specialized training in English for Indigenous police services.

Calls for action from 2 public inquiries

Both the national and Quebec inquiries called upon all governments to "immediately and dramatically" change the state of Indigenous policing, including amending Quebec's Police Act to acknowledge the existence and status of Indigenous police forces as being similar to those of other police organizations in the province, as well as replace the program with a legislative and funding framework developed in partnership with Indigenous Peoples.

Both reports cited Toward Peace, Harmony, and Well-Being: Policing in Indigenous Communities, a report published by the Council of Canadian Academies in April 2019, that concluded Indigenous communities receive policing services that do not meet their safety and security needs.

Naiomi Metallic, an assistant professor and chancellor's chair in Aboriginal law and policy at Dalhousie University, was an expert panellist for the report and also testified at the national inquiry's Expert and Knowledge Keeper Hearings about how the program needs an overhaul.

Naiomi Metallic, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University, testified before the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Stephanie VanKampen)

She said underfunding and structural problems in the delivery of essential services in First Nations communities, like policing, impact the vulnerability of Indigenous women and girls. 

"A part of it is underfunding but it's part of a broader structure that's really problematic," said Metallic.

"Current government policies that are being made today are resulting in the ongoing and exacerbation of poverty in communities and is putting communities at risk."

An essential service designation would secure regular and predictable funding, according to the report.

"We're always asking for the same recognition, resourcing and support that other police services get because we know and we understand the needs of our community," said Zacharie.

"For us, it's about being able to provide services to our communities. Why do we ever have to get into these negotiations? If we say we need something, shouldn't we have the resources to deal with an issue?"

The calls for an essential service designation has been echoed from Indigenous leaders including Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Quebec and Labrador regional chief Ghislain Picard.

Ghislain Picard, right, chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, at the beginning of a meeting with the Quebec government as a follow up to the Viens Report on Oct. 17 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

During the federal election campaign, the Liberal Party pledged to improve public safety in First Nations communities by co-developing a legislative framework for First Nations policing which recognizes First Nations policing as an essential service and to expand the number of communities served by First Nations policing.

Since the First Nations Policing Program was created in 1991, 20 self-administered First Nations police services have closed across Canada and there hasn't been a new one created since 2008.

Quebec officials met with First Nations leaders on Oct. 17 and will again in December to discuss the implementation of the Viens Commission's recommendations.

"Our government intends to do things differently in collaboration with its Indigenous partners, since they must play a fundamental role in the recommendations' implementation. We'll wait for the feedback from our Indigenous partners before we prioritize our actions on the recommendations," a statement to CBC News read.

For families like the Morrisons, changes need to come sooner than later.

"It's not something that can just sit and be pushed to the side," said Morrison. "That needs to happen now. It has an impact on the reality of Aboriginal women."


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.