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RCMP leaders say system undermines their efforts to improve policing in Indigenous communities

RCMP checkpoint on the Morice West Forest Service Road on Jan. 13, 2020, as tensions mount between five hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and a gas pipeline company. PNG

RCMP leaders in B.C. say developing good working relationships with Indigenous communities is a priority for them, but the province’s expansive geography, lack of localized cultural awareness training, the frequent rotation of officers and a lopsided funding formula have slowed or prevented progress.

That was the message from RCMP detachment commanders recently to a provincial legislature committee whose job is to recommend reforms to B.C’s 50 year-old Police Act.

Over the past year, Canada’s national police force has acknowledged Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and said it is trying to advance reconciliation through more culturally sensitive policing in Indigenous communities.

But Sgt. Anthony Fletcher, who leads the RCMP’s Northern Rockies detachment, a 97,000 square kilometre region that borders the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alberta, testified that policing large, remote areas is a challenge in serving Indigenous communities.

“To put this in perspective, some of our responses to calls are the equivalent of a police officer in Surrey responding to a call in Kelowna.”

RCMP Supt. Shaun Wright, who leads the detachment in Prince George, said existing cultural awareness training falls short because it is created from the top down.

“Indigenous history and cultural awareness training on a national or provincial scale is insufficient to address the needs of local communities,” said Wright. “I think there should be targeted funding provided directly to local communities to work with police to develop training that’s specific to those local communities, based upon the local history and the demographics.”

Having inexperienced junior RCMP officers spending two or three years in the communities before being transferred to another detachment can also undermine relationship-building, the commanders said, though they were hard-pressed to offer alternatives.

“We are always going to have turnover in those remote communities. That’s just a fact of life, I believe,” said Wright.

Hazelton RCMP Staff Sgt. Darren Durnin told the committee that officers in his detachment are encouraged to take part in community activities when not in uniform, noting that trust is not gained if the only time an Indigenous community member sees a police officer is when someone is arrested or a child is apprehended.

“One of our newly arrived officers will take on a youth hockey coaching role. Another is considering working with the high school basketball team,” he said.

But Durnin admits enforcing injunctions at Wet’suwet’en blockades against the Coastal GasLink pipeline undermines relationship-building.

“I have found navigating these events challenging, as my decided actions and that of others embroiled in the conflict can have a lasting impact on trust and the relationship with police, the very thing we work so hard to establish.”

The detachment commanders pointed to inequities caused by the funding formula that divides costs for RCMP services among three levels or government. Municipalities over 15,000 people pay 90 per cent of the cost, those between 5,000 and 15,000 pay 70 per cent and those under 5,000 pay nothing. The commanders said in trying to serve every community equally, larger municipalities often end up subsidizing services to smaller rural and Indigenous communities.

In some instances, the federal and provincial governments also pay for Indigenous officers under the Indigenous Police Service.

But Supt. Kara Triance, who leads the Kelowna RCMP detachment, told the committee that police respond to calls based on what resources are needed and not by who is paying for them.

“The Indigenous communities are not resourced at the same levels as the contracted municipalities that they border,” she said. “The disparity places pressures on our Indigenous communities against our municipal contracted partners.”

RCMP Supt. Davy Lee, who heads police services in the Upper Fraser Valley region, from Chilliwack to Boston Bar, said Indigenous communities have little say in police operations unless they have agreements with the federal and provincial governments. Such agreements include goals, resource levels and make police more accountable to Indigenous communities.

Lee said only eight of the 23 Indigenous communities in his region have such agreements.

“Therefore, 62 per cent of our Indigenous communities within the (detachment area) do not receive enhanced policing services,” he said.

The commanders said they have taken steps to try to offset the disparities by creating programs and services with local Indigenous communities, but admit the work is being done “off the sides of our desks.”

Adam Olsen, a Green party MLA and committee member, said it’s crucial to hear from RCMP officers who know what their communities need to improve their police services, and the barriers they face in doing it.

“It’s important our recommendations support and build on their experiences,” he said.

The all-party special committee has heard from hundreds of experts, police and members of the public since it was created in July 2020. Its final report is due at the end of April.

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