Politics

Ottawa pledges overhaul of First Nations police funding

The federal government says it's prepared to change a program that helps pay for policing in First Nations and Inuit communities. The First Nations Policing Program has been criticized by the auditor general in a new internal report by Public Safety Canada.

First Nations Police Program 'does not cut the mustard,' public safety minister says

The federal government pays about half the cost of policing for close to 400 First Nations and Inuit communities across Canada. The First Nations Policing Program, started in 1991, funds about 1,250 officers who serve more than 338,000 people. (Troy Fleece/Canadian Press)

The federal government is vowing to overhaul the way it funds police services in First Nations communities.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says Ottawa's First Nations Policing Program — in place since the early 1990s — is out of date and needs reform.

"Clearly what is there now does not cut the mustard," Goodale said Tuesday. "It is going to take more funds, but it is also going to take restructuring."

Goodale's comments come in the wake of an internal report by Public Safety Canada that details persistent problems with the program, which helps fund police services in more than 450 First Nation and Inuit communities.

"The status quo is not a viable option," says the report, which was published online this month. "There is a need to look at alternative models for funding policing in Indigenous communities that can result in better value for money and public safety in First Nations and Inuit communities."

The report chronicles some of the long-standing complaints from police detachments in Indigenous communities — chief among them, crumbling infrastructure.

"In many cases, the detachments are converted houses or trailers placed on gravel or concrete pads. The pads are subject to heaving and cracking and the trailers subject to leaks and mould," the report reads.

"Concerns were raised by a majority of respondents that the [First Nations Policing Program] does not adequately address infrastructure needs for policing these communities."

The report recommends that the federal government establish a new model of long-term, stable funding.

It says Ottawa must deal with the infrastructure issues raised by police and also do more to resolve issues such as a lack of adequate housing for officers in communities that are often struggling with chronic housing shortages.

Track record of lacking resources

This isn't the first time the policing program has come under scrutiny. In 2014, Canada's auditor general visited 16 First Nations communities and found the policing program was not working as intended.

The resulting report noted that in Ontario, the program was not ensuring that policing services on First Nations reserves met standards set in the rest of the province.

The Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, which patrols more than 30 First Nations in northern Ontario, told a recent inquest into a woman's death it did not have the resources to do its job properly. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

The issue of First Nations police funding also came under fire earlier this year during an inquest into a 2013 death in the northern Ontario's Kasabonika Lake First Nation.

A young woman took her own life in the back of a police truck. She had been confined there by officers who had no holding cell in which to place her.

The Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, which patrols more than 30 First Nations in northern Ontario, told an inquest into the woman's death it did not have the resources to do its job properly.

Goodale said he is consulting with First Nations leaders and the provinces on a "complete review" of the First Nations Policing Program, to make sure communities receive "top-notch policing services" that are "properly and sustainably funded for the long term."

The minister said he hopes to have a proposal for a new funding model ready by early next year. He did not provide any further detail or a potential price tag.

The First Nations Policing Program provided $120 million in 2014-15 for 1,299 police officers working in 455 First Nations and Inuit communities, Public Safety Canada says.

NDP MP Charlie Angus says the lack of funding for First Nations policing is putting officers and communities at risk. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Northern Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus said changes to policing in Indigenous communities are long past due. 

"They're working without proper backup, they're working without proper radios, they've working without even police stations to hold prisoners in," Angus said in an interview with CBC News. 

"It puts not just the police officers themselves at risk, but it puts the communities at serious, serious risk."

If the government is serious about reforming the funding model for policing, Angus said, he would welcome it. But he first wants to see proof.

"This is a serious funding issue, so I'd say to Ralph [Goodale], show us the money."

Dwayne Zacharie, chief peacekeeper in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, Que., and president of the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association, said he and other First Nations police representatives have met with Goodale to voice their concerns about the policing program.

"We said that we wanted to be recognized as an essential service. We said that we need to have funding that's appropriate for our needs. We said that we need to get better training," Zacharie said.

Zacharie said he hopes Goodale got the message. He's curious to see what the government comes up with in the new year. 

"I'm encouraged, but at the same time, I want to see what the new plan is or what the proposal will be," he said.

About the Author

Tom Parry

Senior Reporter

Tom Parry is a reporter on Parliament Hill for CBC News. He has covered stories for CBC from across Canada and around the world.