The recent Supreme Court ruling that Metis and non-status Indians are indeed "Indians" under the Canadian Constitution will mean either a serious rehabilitation or complete reconstruction of the Indian Act. Along with the government's heavy lifting I hope the ruling will renew interest in self determination of native policing needs.
A 1994 invitation to the inaugural training seminar for the Anishinabek Police Service near Orillia, Ontario gave me a whole new understanding of police work. I was invited to join a circle of police officers and First Nations police services board members.
I initially felt the circle was simply a convenient way to converse as a group, but later learned the significance of it, and my inclusion, meant far more. I discovered a great deal about history, dignity, respect and attitudes that translate well to policing.
First Nations people seem to have walked in a shadow of gloom for centuries over what was formerly a great people with a well developed lifestyle. As if in mourning they drew inward, in many respects cutting themselves off, and being cut off, by mainstream society.
Historically it is very understandable. The arrival of Europeans was a considerable culture shock to a society that, out of necessity, existed in tune with nature. The Aboriginals understood man's vulnerability. For thousands of years they learned to adapt to the environment and understood the simply awesome power of "the Creator."
Man could do nothing to stop the changes of the seasons. Life was not looked upon as something that simply begins and ends. Everything was seen to go in circles. The seasons change, the sun rises and sets, the moon passes through its phases and man is born from and returns to the soil.
The traditional "Medicine Wheel" was a very powerful factor in native culture, representing nature's wheel and how everything made by "the Creator" is in balance. If someone was sick or a relationship troubled it generally meant that something was out of balance in the "wheel" of life. The solution was to find what was out of sync and re-balance so the cycle of life can continue.
The white man brought ideas of opportunity and exploitation, motivated by profit and a "what's in it for me" attitude. They were in denial of man's weakness or subservience to nature and came with unimaginable ambition, tools and technology to ensure their success. By brute force or guile they would have their way.
Slowly but relentlessly the Europeans forged ahead. They didn't understand First Nations people, who only hindered their progress, and sought ways to control them. An arrogant attitude of superiority caused many of our forefathers to hastily write treaties that were, at best, ill thought out and vague. Both sides had their own idea of what they were signing.
First Nations today are more knowledgeable and understand the full impact of their history and strongly feel they're reclaiming what is rightfully theirs. This is a generation which understands far more clearly what people on both sides of the table were thinking when the treaties were signed. The result can be seen in a succession of court victories in disputes which non aboriginals have neglected or delayed addressing.
First Nations people also understand that to survive they must open dialogue with governments and be respected on equal terms as nations, not just a people. They gave up land but never gave up their idea of community or nationhood.
As l entered that 'circle of cops' l discovered each participant's desire to "keep the circle strong." As officers spoke about their sense of community and duty it finally dawned on me. The strength of the group gives strength to the individual. The strength of the circle, everything in balance, the strength of the wheel and, in their terminology, the power of the Creator's presence.
I was honoured that day to experience a police training session like no other and came away feeling these people have come of age. They deserve every bit of the autonomy they desire. Keeping the peace in their own community is vital to a new beginning for a very proud people.
Today we see tripartite agreements being squeezed and First Nations Police Services waning. We must acknowledge that this style is at variance with non-aboriginal policing styles but must be more clearly understood, supported and, yes, even emulated. These officers do make a difference and are an encouragment to a younger generation hungry for role models.
"We have watched and learned from the white man's ways but are stuck with the cards played by our ancestors," one native leader told me as we spoke over lunch.
"Our ancestors never understood the rules of that game completely. It is up to us, who understand that game, to pickup those cards and play by the white man's rules. We understand that we must live, as much as possible, with the white man's society and respect them as our neighbours – but we must have honour and respect for the ways of our ancestors and the will of the Creator. We all walk in the shadow of the Creator."
(Sourced from October 1994)