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Grand chief calls for aboriginal police to replace RCMP in northern Manitoba

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WINNIPEG - A Manitoba grand chief wants aboriginal police officers with the power to keep alcohol out of dry communities to replace the RCMP on northern reserves when the province's contract with the force expires next year.

David Harper, who represents northern First Nations, says native communities should be patrolled by their own people. He says many remote reserves don't have RCMP detachments and the nearest is hours away.

"There has been a total neglect in policing. One officer for every 2,000 or 3,000 people is not acceptable," Harper said. "We could prevent a lot of tragedies that are happening in communities."

Mounties aren't able to enforce band bylaws such as those that prevent people from bringing alcohol into a dry reserve, he pointed out.

"They won't enforce it because it's not part of the contract. That is totally uncalled for."

Harper suggests the end of the current RCMP contract in Manitoba will present a perfect opportunity to establish some aboriginal police detachments. The province has one right now — the Dakota Ojibwa Police Service, which serves five communities in the south and is one of the longest-operating First Nations forces in Canada.

There are more examples in Saskatchewan and Ontario, Harper said.

"We need to do more, way more."

Premier Greg Selinger has said his government — currently running for re-election — supports establishing more aboriginal police forces. But his attorney general said Manitoba's hands are tied by the federal government.

Andrew Swan said the province doesn't have the financial support it needs from Ottawa. The costs of aboriginal policing are split between the two levels of government and Manitoba can't just go it alone.

Despite Ottawa's focus on law and order, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government took $20 million out of aboriginal policing at one point and has only put $17 million back.

"They haven't given any indication that they're prepared to increase the amount of money that's there for aboriginal policing," Swan said. "There are a number of communities that would like to move down that road but, at this point, unfortunately we're not really able to go too far because the federal government isn't stepping up to the plate with more money."

A spokeswoman with Aboriginal Affairs Canada said the issue falls under the jurisdiction of Public Safety. A spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews declined to make the minister available on what she said is a "provincial issue."

"Policing is in the jurisdiction of the provinces," Julie Carmichael said in an email. "The community may make representations for a self-administered agreement under the First Nations Policing Program to the federal government, but it is ultimately the province who must be onside."

Selinger said the NDP would back more aboriginal forces if First Nations came up with a business model that ensured community safety, provided local jobs and that worked well with the RCMP.

"When it comes to policing, the first priority is safe, secure communities and citizens," he said. "We can do it. We've done it in other places ... and we're prepared to consider it in the future."

Not all First Nations want to see an increased emphasis on policing, aboriginal or otherwise. Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said the focus should be on the root causes of crime rather than on increasing the number of aboriginal police officers.

First Nations communities need more healing centres and more addiction recovery resources, he said.

"Escalating gang violence, a higher prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse — what are the conditions that are creating that? As opposed to what are the Band-Aid solutions that we can apply to stem the tide of malcontent in our communities."

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