Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Passing the buck won't help northern reserves

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OTTAWA -- Not my job, man.

In a nutshell, that was the response both provincial and federal governments had last week after a northern Manitoba First Nation went public with photos of band members chained to the floor of a hockey arena because it no longer had keys to the RCMP holding cells on the reserve.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told reporters it was all on the province at least three times in a brief scrum last week. Under the Constitution, provinces have authority for policing. Ottawa provides funding, but the province has to answer for actual policing problems.

Manitoba Attorney General Andrew Swan said the feds are to blame for the travesty in Northlands First Nation because they haven't offered a training program for band constables for two years and ignored an August letter from Swan asking for a meeting about the situation in Lac Brochet and aboriginal policing in general.

Meanwhile, Northlands First Nation lost both its trained band constables in June, has no full-time RCMP presence, and now has large gaps of time in which it has nowhere to put anyone that needs to be detained.

The band has only had to handle cases of public intoxication so far, but what happens when something more serious and potentially violent occurs?

What are northern First Nations supposed to do when they need to arrest somebody and there is no RCMP in sight? About half the 30 reserves in northern Manitoba only have RCMP around part of the time.

Through an agreement with the RCMP, band constables with federally sanctioned training were given leeway by the RCMP to use their facilities and detain people until the RCMP can get there. Senior Manitoba Mounties refer to it as "secondary" policing, according to aboriginal sources.

But according to Toews, the band constables aren't trained to detain anyone, and using the RCMP facilities is a liability. So the federal position is First Nations have to just sit back and wait if someone breaks the law unless the Mounties are nearby.

This from a government that pledged to go after guns, gangs and drugs and put more police on streets.

The purpose of this column isn't to let the province off the hook. Policing is a provincial jurisdiction, and the First Nations Policing Program operates with provincial oversight. The feds have been involved for years, but in reality they don't really have to be.

So where is the province on this? Sitting back and waiting for Ottawa to do something about it.

Aboriginal leaders fear the band constable program is falling apart. They saw it coming for years, as the needs in communities grew, populations soared and money and training opportunities dwindled.

Two years ago, the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak pulled together a proposal that would have Ottawa spend $2 million to train 30 aboriginals as full-fledged police officers. The RCMP and Winnipeg police were on board to do the training and agreed to hire the officers immediately.

MKO sees the new officers eventually forming the backbone of a regional police force that will put aboriginal officers on the ground in every northern reserve all of the time.

The entire thing is on ice because the province refused to participate in 2011 and 2012. The province's participation is a requirement for the federal government to provide funding under the Skills and Partnership Fund.

If there is any place in Manitoba that needs a constant police presence it is northern Manitoba reserves. These are scarred communities with high rates of poverty, substance abuse and violence. They are remote, and it can take hours for RCMP to arrive.

A 2009 review of the federal First Nations Policing Program found 80 per cent of reserve leaders did not feel there were enough police in their communities to meet their needs. Dealing with drugs and alcohol were the main concerns. The same report noted reserves have three times the crime rate of non-reserve communities.

Both the provincial and federal governments talk a good game when it comes to getting tough on crime. But on northern Manitoba reserves, that talk isn't getting them better policing.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2012 A7

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