FLIN FLON -- When First Nations stress the need for independence, they don't have in mind citizen patrols filling in law-enforcement gaps or prisoners chained to the floor of an arena dressing room.
Recent headlines have exposed these and other shortcomings in efforts to uphold law and order across the 30 largely isolated, often crime-riddled reserves of northern Manitoba.
The problems in some cases have been embellished. In April, for example, the Free Press wrongly reported Pukatawagan had only a single Mountie. In fact, no Manitoba detachment carries just a solo officer.
Still, there can be little doubt David Harper, Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), is right to describe a "crisis" of policing in the North.
For a number of reserves, the distance from police protection is startling. Tadoule Lake, the most extreme example, is 350 kilometres north of the Thompson RCMP who police it. Police fly in on a scheduled and as-needed basis.
"This is a lawless town right now," says Thomas Duck, a longtime resident of the community of 325.
Yet Duck does not feel endangered, saying a community surveillance program with which he is involved helps keep a lid on misconduct.
Duck describes crime in Tadoule Lake as more foolish than treacherous. A young person causing alcohol-fuelled aggravation, for instance, will be told to "smarten up" and go home to bed.
But if something more egregious happens, the Mounties must be called in -- and it's a long wait to see them.
Some advocates believe First Nations need more police officers even as, according to the RCMP website, detachments like God's Lake, Oxford House, Shamattawa and Moose Lake already employ more Mounties per capita than any of the North's major centres of Thompson, The Pas and Flin Flon.
RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Line Karpish says decisions on how to allocate resources to a given community are made in partnership with the province. Consideration goes to workload, demands for service and geographical location, among other factors.
Is stationing more Mounties on reserves the right approach?
Karpish says only that under the Provincial Policing Service Agreement, the RCMP receives a budget that it manages "as efficiently as we can based on the allocated resources."
What about federally funded band constables, who for years have been working hand in hand with reserve-based Mounties? Can't we just hire more of them?
Karpish calls band constables an asset to both the RCMP and their communities, providing "important knowledge of the people, dynamics and geographical area we police that our members may not have."
Unfortunately, more than a third of northern Manitoba reserves have no provincially certified band constables, according to the MKO.
Worse, the issue has fallen into the territory of provincial-federal bickering. The feds blame the province for the lack of band constables, the province returns the favour, and nothing gets solved.
In Tadoule Lake, Duck would like to see a greater RCMP presence as well as band constables.
But he says constables would need to be imported from outside the community.
The challenges around reserve policing have fuelled predictable claims that high crime is guaranteed until First Nations address rampant social ills.
True enough. In the meantime, however, surely Ottawa and Broadway can put aside their finger-pointing to reach a healthier solution.
Even a place as far-flung as Tadoule Lake has a nursing station. How much sense does it make to have medical emergencies covered but not, in any sort of prompt fashion, criminal ones?
Politicians of all stripes agree in order for First Nations to succeed, new opportunities must take hold.
None of them can realistically expect that to happen in the absence of basic security.
Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.