Separate policing services would not solve Indigenous-Crown tensions on their own, critics say

As tensions between the RCMP and Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in British Columbia continue to drive protests across the country, some observers are suggesting the federal government could use an existing policing program to help resolve the impasse.

Some First Nations have their own police forces - but what many want are their own courts

The hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en Nation have said they will not end their protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline project until the RCMP leave their territory entirely and the pipeline company ceases work in the area. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

As tensions between the RCMP and Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in northern British Columbia continue to trigger protests across the country, some observers are suggesting the federal government could use an existing policing program to help resolve the impasse.

Many Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and their supporters have been at odds with the RCMP since officers arrested protesters and dismantled a roadblock that stopped pipeline workers from building the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline project earlier this month. Similar blockades have popped up elsewhere in the country in solidarity with the chiefs.

Those chiefs are demanding that the RCMP pull its officers from from the 22,000 square kilometres of the nation's traditional territory. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has said that while he's open to a long-term discussion about Indigenous policing in northern B.C., the thousands of people living in the region have a right to police protection.

Police take an individual into custody as they enforce an injunction in northern B.C. over the Coastal GasLink project. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

"Every Canadian, regardless of where they live, is entitled to ... a police service and ... the rule of law in their jurisdiction," he said.

The RCMP, which acts as the provincial police service in B.C., has moved its temporary detachment away from the heart of the protests to the nearby town of Houston to de-escalate tensions. It has agreed to temporarily stop patrols on the Morice Forest Service Road to allow for a meeting between the chiefs and representatives of the provincial and federal governments.

Blair was asked about the idea of someday bringing in Indigenous police during a scrum with reporters last week.

"That's possibly a long term discussion," he said last week. "But that's a far more complex discussion."

On Wednesday, Blair said that any discussions about bringing the Wet'suwet'en under the umbrella of the First Nations Policing program — a federal program set up to help communities either administer their own police services or work with the Mounties — "would take some time to resolve."

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair now oversees the First Nations Policing Program. The federal government ​pays about half the cost of policing for about 450 communities, including many remote and fly-in-only areas. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A government official, speaking on background, said that for the time being, the federal government's priority to clear the blockades — and any conversations about a separate police force would need buy-in from both provincial and Indigenous leadership.

The federal government ​pays about half the cost of policing for close to 450 First Nations and Inuit communities across Canada through the First Nations Policing Program, which has been in place since the 1990s.

Two options for Indigenous policing

Most of the program's funding goes to self-administered agreements — which allow First Nations to establish their own policing services under provincial authority and make them responsible for managing these services — and community tripartite agreements, through which officers from an existing policing service (usually the RCMP) provide policing services to communities.

Some 432,000 Canadians are covered by the agreement, including people living in remote and fly-in-only areas.

Outside of the larger municipalities, the government of British Columbia provides policing through the RCMP — with one exception.

The Stl'atl'imx Tribal Police Service is the only First Nations-administered police force in the province. Based out of its Mount Currie and Lillooet detachments, it's an independent municipal police department with its own police board.

The Stl'atl'imx Tribal Police Service employs eight officers split between its two detachments and faced "serious resourcing challenges" in the last fiscal year, according to its latest annual report.

The ability to say 'no'

No one familiar with the First Nations Policing Program seems to think it would be a cure-all for the Crown Indigenous relationship. Kent Elson, a lawyer who has acted in cases involving policing in Indigenous communities, said a new First Nations policing agreement would be a step in the right direction but, on its own, would not go far enough. 

"The FNPP can provide more First Nation control over policing. This could help in future disputes to some degree," he said.

"But the underlying issues regarding development on First Nation lands are much deeper. Free consent requires the ability to say 'no.' The FNPP cannot solve those critical underlying issues."

Dan Bellegarde is chair of the File Hills Board of Police Commissioners in Saskatchewan. The community has had a self-administered police force for almost 20 years. What it wants, he said, is its own justice system featuring tribal courts and restorative justice.

Bellegarde said there will continue to be tension over policing in Indigenous communities as long as Indigenous police have to enforce the Criminal Code.

"The nation-to-nation approach espoused by the current Liberal government would lead one to think that at some point the First Nations will be in control and in total governance of their own institutions, enforcing their own law in some form across jurisdiction with provincial and federal law," he said. "But at the present time, no space has been [set aside] for First Nations law."

A potential for conflict

While a self-administered police service could act to calm tensions, University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach, who advised the Ipperwash inquiry, said it also could put Indigenous police officers at odds with their communities. 

"Potentially, Indigenous police services might act as an important interlocutor between other police services and Indigenous protesters. That is one of the tragedies of the under-funding and disbandment of many Indigenous police services," he said.

"At the same time, they are not a panacea and could themselves find themselves in difficult conflicts between Canadian and Indigenous laws."

The First Nations Policing Program has had its problems. In 2014, Canada's auditor general visited 16 First Nations communities and found the policing program was not working as intended.

Some police services complained of expired bulletproof vests, inadequate training and subpar housing for officers sent to remote communities. Some Indigenous communities even took the federal government to court over the gaps in service.

Last year, a federally commissioned report found many Indigenous communities lack policing services that meet their safety and security needs.

"Municipal and regional police services may adopt culturally appropriate policing practices; however, systemic racism and discrimination against Indigenous people remains a serious issue that has contributed to a lack of trust between police and Indigenous communities," said the Council of Canadian Academies review.

That report also flagged problems with the First Nations Policing Program, writing that its inadequate resources have been a persistent source of frustration for many Indigenous communities.

In early 2018, the Liberal government kicked $291 million into the program following years of complaints.

"We have heard that there is a need for more transformative changes in the way First Nations policing is supported in this country," said Mary-Liz Power.


With files from the Canadian Press