MONTREAL — Quebec's 22 Indigenous police forces have filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, accusing the federal government of chronic underfunding that has left them unable to properly serve their communities.
The complaint follows a similar action taken with the rights body by First Nations police forces Ontario.
Federal money for Indigenous police in Canada has been inadequate for decades, Shawn Dulude, president of the Quebec Association of First Nation and Inuit Police Directors, said in an interview Tuesday.
"The funding has always been inadequate and it sets us up to fail," Dulude said.
There are currently 36 Indigenous police services across the country, mainly in Ontario and Quebec, with five in Western Canada.
In March 2023, the Indigenous Police Chiefs of Ontario filed a human rights complaint, alleging systemic discrimination by Canada's "deliberate and wilful underfunding and under-resourcing" of communities through the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program.
The program, launched in 1991, created a expense-sharing model for First Nations policing in the country, under which Ottawa would pay 52 per cent of the costs and the provinces or territories 48 per cent.
But the total amount that is being spent on Indigenous policing is not enough said Dulude, who is also chief of the police service in the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne, which straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state. He said the lack of funding prevents Indigenous police from providing basic services on par with other forces across the country, adding that on his territory, officers are sharing expired bulletproof vests.
Discussions with the federal government over funding take place in the presence of lawyers and aren't negotiations at all, he added.
"Basically it's a take it or leave it type of attitude and we want this to cease," Dulude said "We want to be recognized as essential services and we want to be funded accordingly."
On salaries, Indigenous officers in Quebec are paid about 25 to 30 per cent less compared to their counterparts in the provincial police or municipal forces for the same work, Dulude said.
"We have less money in our coffers to be able to provide adequate services, so in the long run, who suffers? It's our communities. It's the neighbouring communities. It's anybody that transits or comes to our communities," Dulude said.
Public Safety Canada did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Benoît Amyot, a lawyer representing the First Nations police, said the case must first be accepted by the commission before it can be referred to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which hears discrimination cases.
Amyot noted that a landmark $23-billion settlement against the federal government — for more than 300,000 First Nations children and their families over chronic underfunding of on-reserve child-welfare services — was approved last week and stems from the tribunal.
The tribunal — a quasi-judicial body — can also supervise changes to the program that funds Indigenous police forces, Amyot said.
Meanwhile, a separate legal case on the funding of Indigenous police forces will be heard before the Supreme Court of Canada in 2024.
Quebec's Court of Appeal overturned a lower-court ruling in December 2022, finding that the provincial and federal governments owed the First Nation police force serving the community of Mashteuiatsh, in the Lac-St-Jean region, about $1.6 million to make up for years of underfunding.
Ottawa has said it won't appeal, but the Quebec government has appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn that decision.
Dulude is hopeful that with First Nations police forces in Quebec and Ontario filing complaints, the federal government will eventually recognize and reform its funding practices.
"We don't want to be confronting the government, we're offering them our hand, we want this to be resolved and we don't want it to drag on," Dulude said. "But right now, everything that we've experienced over the last year or so showed us that we have to go this route now."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2023.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press