Blue Line


September 26, 2012  By Chris D. Lewis

2747 words – MR

Policing aboriginal communities

Creating a safe and prosperous environment

by Chris D. Lewis


Critical incidents related to indigenous rights or social and economic conditions often attract national and international media coverage but day-to-day policing is rarely mentioned or explored. Many indigenous communities are small and isolated and their unique needs make providing effective local policing challenging, complex and often frustrating.

Ontario has Canada’s largest indigenous or aboriginal population; an estimated 296,495 individuals are identified as North American Indian (First Nations), Métis or Inuit. Most live in urban centres; only 30 per cent live in the province`s 133 First Nations reserve communities, 127 of which are recognized under the federal <1>. Many other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world have similar aboriginal populations, although individual histories, language, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs vary dramatically.

The obligates the OPP to provide police services in all parts of the province not serviced by a municipal police service. This obligation places us in a unique position with respect to policing First Nations territories.

Historically, the RCMP policed Ontario First Nations, in keeping with the (then) view that Indian affairs were a federal responsibility. This began to change in the 1960s, when federal financial support for on-reserve policing began to replace direct-service delivery. The RCMP withdrew and, by the early 1970s, OPP officers, supplemented by local community special constables with limited authority, policed all Ontario reserves.

Fly-in patrol units were established to reach remote northern communities. By the mid-1970s they logged hundreds of thousands of flying hours supervising local special constables, offering guidance on federal Indian Act bylaw offences, investigating serious crimes and liaising with community leadership on policing issues. The distances, isolation, lack of radio communication and need to use frozen lakes and rivers as landing strips made for extremely challenging policing conditions.

By 1989, self-policing was a growing focus. The Six Nations Police, established in 1989 on the Six Nations of the Grand River near Hamilton, and the Akwesasne Mohawk Police, established in 1990 in southeastern Ontario, led the way as independent police services. The concept of community choice and the self-directed policing option were entrenched in the (OFNPA), considered a landmark tripartite agreement among First Nations and the federal and provincial governments. It and subsequent renewals set the stage for a gradual expansion of self-directed First Nations police services.

Today, the OPP directly polices 19 First Nations communities, provides administrative support for 19 more and operational and specialty services support for the nine self-directed First Nations police services, which police 94 communities.

While the OPP no longer provides direct service delivery to most First Nations, it has a vested interest in the sustainability and effectiveness of their policing. The priority is community safety and the OPP continues to help train, support and advocate for improved conditions so that policing can effectively meet their needs.

For a variety of complex reasons, particularly in remote and isolated communities, this remains an immense challenge.

{Difficult conditions}

Community conditions vary greatly. Some, such as Six Nations of the Grand River and Chippewas of Rama near Orillia in central Ontario, are located on good transportation routes adjacent to nearby towns and cities, with easy access to a diversified economy and varied educational opportunities. Others, such as Kashechewan First Nation on the shores of Hudson Bay and Pikangikum First Nation in the far northwest, are small and isolated, accessible only by air and winter roads when the muskeg and ice are firm enough to support vehicles. Educational and economic opportunities are extremely limited.

Social indicators for some of Canada’s aboriginal communities paint a bleak picture. Statistics Canada’s <2009 General Social Survey> found people who self-identified as aboriginal were significantly more likely to report being victimized compared to the general population. The survey used a list of eight offences, including three types of violent crime, four household crimes and theft<2>.

In addition, aboriginal people are more likely to be victims of nonspousal violence and report being victimized multiple times. In 2009, 12 per cent reported being the victim of at least one nonspousal violent crime – more than double the five per cent rate of non-aboriginals<3>.

Incarceration rates are also telling: In 2008–2009, 35 per cent of women and 23 per cent of men identified as aboriginal admitted to adult-sentenced custody, even though they make up only three per cent of the adult Canadian population (2006 census data)<4>.

In 2000 – the latest year for which statistics are available – the national suicide rate for aboriginals (24 per 100,000) was twice that of the general population and significantly higher in certain communities and subgroups, notably aboriginal youth<5>. In Pikangikum, a small community of 2,334 residents, a recent spate of youth suicides (five within 44 days) led a former chief to make a public plea for help<6>.

The OPP is studying the Ontario assistant coroner’s to see how it can help address some of the challenges and contributing factors. The report is a detailed and comprehensive review of the suicides of 16 children between 2006–2008<7>.

Pikangikum is policed under the OFNPA by constables employed by the community and supported by the OPP. Because of an extremely high number of incidents requiring a police response, the OPP continues to send officers on two-week live-in rotations to supplement the community police.

The number of aboriginal youth dropping out before completing high school is also high. A 2006 report states 54 per cent of reserve residents between 20 and 24 had not graduated high school. The comparable 2001 rate for all of Canada was 16 per cent<8>.

The national unemployment rate for aboriginal people living on reserves in 2001 was 27.6 per cent, four times the rate for the country<9>. On northern, isolated reserves, the rate can be as high as 80 per cent, although these populations are more likely to be involved in traditional pursuits such as hunting, fishing and trapping – hard work not captured in employment statistics.

Other social indicators can be equally alarming. If living conditions on many reserves – crowded, crumbling housing, inadequate infrastructure, poor-quality drinking water and limited services – existed in a large Canadian city, there would be outrage and cries for action.

These conditions – poverty, high unemployment and limited opportunities – provide the perfect incubator for a growing phenomenon in Canada: organized crime gangs based on aboriginal identity.

Among other activities, these gangs import and sell illegally obtained prescription drugs in isolated First Nations communities, creating significant social and community safety issues. One remote community declared a state of emergency in October 2010, appealing for help to fight a crisis of drug abuse, violence and arson that plagued the health and safety of residents. Its police agency, the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS), did not have the resources to cope. The OPP joined forces with NAPS and other criminal justice partners and achieved some success in stabilizing the situation and stemming the flow of prescription drugs.

While the numbers will vary, the social indicators for indigenous populations in many jurisdictions around the world would be equally alarming. Agencies responsible for day-to-day policing in these communities and the officers who work there need to understand and plan for these conditions if they hope to be effective.

{Recruitment and retention}

The OPP works hard to promote policing as a viable profession and the organization as a viable workplace for people from all backgrounds and regions but recruiting officers of aboriginal descent is still a struggle, especially in smaller northern communities. The requisite education level for police recruits is one factor, given the high numbers of aboriginals who do not complete high school. Lower education levels mean fewer potential candidates.

While the primary focus is to recruit First Nations officers from the community or region where they will serve, some prospective officers likely will not want to police their home areas because it would mean policing their own families. Housing is an issue in virtually every community and if a police officer is not from the area, adequate housing is rarely available.

Continuity is a further challenge, given that promotion and a desire for broader experience in specialized areas are not easily accommodated in small, isolated communities.

The OPP regularly recruits and sends newly minted officers to postings in many northern communities. Some may have or soon develop a passion for the north and choose to spend their entire career there – but it is not for everyone.

Officers not of First Nations descent may have to adjust to policing communities with distinctly different approaches to authority, justice and punishment. Native awareness training is one tool the OPP uses to help officers, in particular those who work in or with First Nations communities, develop cultural awareness and understanding. The training helps make it possible to address critical staffing needs.

{Adequate resources}

Policing in First Nations communities has to be seen as a desirable work prospect to attract and keep officers. Infrastructure is a critical factor to sustainability yet many communities face issues that do little for desirability. Adequate funding to affect an adequate level of policing is essential.

A January 2006 fire which broke out in the cell area burned the NAPS building in Kashechewan First Nation to the ground. The building lacked a working smoke detector, fire extinguisher and sprinkler. NAPS officers tried to free the two men in the cells but could not unlock the doors and had to flee. They perished in the fire and the officers were severely injured. The subsequent coroner’s inquest heard the incident described as “another dark chapter in Canada’s shameful history of neglecting First Nations people” and made 86 recommendations, including 16 grouped under the heading “Adequacy of resources”<10>.

Ten First Nations policing agreements, including the nine self-directed police services and the OFNPA administered by the OPP, are funded by the Canadian and Ontario governments: 52 per cent and 48 per cent, respectively, for frontline policing. The OPP regularly supplements resources necessary to support the 19 OFNPA communities it administers and has provided officers and resources to support them. The existing structure severely limits the ability to adequately address their policing needs. Jurisdictional issues cannot be left to trump the need for workable solutions that address quality of police services and facilities.

{Exceptional incidents}

Policing in remote communities requires a subtle and flexible approach, exceptional judgment and advanced negotiating skills. Officers who may have just one or two colleagues in the community and are often a long flight from any backup can face situations unheard of in larger centres. An incident in June 2010 is one example.

During a domestic disturbance call, one of the two responding officers was forced to strike a subject who attempted to grab his firearm. The next day, with a band council resolution in hand, an angry crowd of more than 200 residents surrounded the police station, saying the OPP was no longer wanted and demanding that officers leave. It cut communication lines and disabled police vehicles.

To buy time and calm the situation, the dozen officers agreed to walk to the airport, escorted by the crowd. With the help of some respected outsiders, they then negotiated but the OPP position was clear: Officers would not leave the community without police service. Eventually, relief officers were flown in. The embattled officers left for safety reasons but continuity of policing was maintained through a difficult and volatile incident.

The majority of residents and the band council chief, who was away at the time of the incident, quickly made it clear that the crowd’s actions were not broadly supported and reiterated the desire to retain the OPP.

The officers received a letter of commendation from the OPP commissioner for their appropriate behaviour under extreme duress, minimal use of force during the lengthy standoff and strict maintenance of firearms discipline. The commendation was criticized by some First Nations leadership, underscoring the complicated nature of police work and community relations.

{Lessons learned}

Some lessons from the OPP’s long involvement in First Nations policing:

  1. Be an advocate. Police must tirelessly advocate in a professional and supportive manner for adequate and appropriate resources for aboriginal communities. It is not acceptable to shrug and passively accept inadequacies.

  2. Good liaison officers are essential. Strong, two-way communication between respected individuals is crucial. Trained liaison officers can establish this rapport and maintain it in a way that melds with aboriginal culture and community expectations.

  3. Build partnerships. When First Nations leadership singled out illicit drug activity as a major issue, the OPP listened and responded, earning the leaders confidence and community support for enforcement action. Partnerships were struck with First Nations police services and other agencies, making the issue a priority. The number of investigations, charges and quantities of drugs seized represent significant achievements. Acting without partnerships and community understanding, despite the staggering nature of the problem, would not have been accepted.

  4. Cultural awareness is key. The OPP runs a respected five-day native awareness course open to all officers and civilians. Members lecture on culture and history for all police recruits at the Ontario Police College. A variety of special events and lectures with an aboriginal theme are held at OPP general headquarters and at other locations. The goal is to culturally prepare staff for any interaction or assignment with First Nations.

  5. Have a long-term recruitment strategy for officers of aboriginal descent. The OPP respects diversity and strives to reflect the communities it serves in its ranks. Aboriginal people are underrepresented in police work in Ontario but are essential to providing effective police service in First Nations communities. Any police agency with these obligations needs an effective recruitment strategy to overcome cultural barriers and position police work as an exciting career choice for aboriginal youth.

  6. Policing First Nations requires special strategies and skills. What works in a downtown urban environment may not work in an isolated northern reserve. The OPP created its Aboriginal Policing Bureau in 2007 to ensure it was well positioned to support effective First Nation policing.

  7. Consider special programs with a youth-oriented focus. OPP officers created and regularly provide youth programming designed to foster positive relationships between aboriginal youth and police, build self-esteem and help youth make positive lifestyle choices. The goal is to help instill pride in who they are and where they come from as a building block for the future.

  8. Prepare for the future. There are no quick fixes or magic bullets to address some of the significant challenges facing First Nations communities and the services that police them. Establish long-term goals, set priorities and celebrate incremental improvements.

The overall goal of most, if not all, aboriginal communities is to create a safe and prosperous environment in which residents can live and work. Effective day-to-day policing is essential in helping to achieve that.

<<< Notes:>>>

1 “Aboriginal People in Ontario: Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs Quick Facts,” Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, (accessed November 4, 2011).
2 “Violent Victimization of Aboriginal People in the Provinces,” Statistics Canada (2009), (accessed November 1, 2011).
3 Ibid.
4 Tina Hotton Mahony, “Women and the Criminal Justice System,” Statistics Canada, (accessed November 1, 2011).
5 Laurence J. Kirmayer et al., Suicide among Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, The Aboriginal Healing Foundation Research Series (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2007), (accessed November 1, 2011).
6 “Rash of Suicides Raises Call for Help,” The Chronicle Journal, September 1, 2011, (accessed November 1, 2011).
7 The Office of the Chief Coroner’s Death Review of the Youth Suicides at the Pikangikum First Nation, 2006–2008 , Office of the Chief Coroner, Publications and Reports, (accessed November 1, 2011).
8 Michael Mendelson, Aboriginal Peoples and Postsecondary Education in Canada (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Caledon Institute of Social Policy, July 2006), (accessed November 1, 2011).
9 “Review of Aboriginal Human Resources Development Agreements–Synthesis of Findings–December 2004,” Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, (accessed November 1, 2011).
10 Inquest Touching the Deaths of Ricardo Wesley and Jamie Goodwin: Jury Verdict and Recommendations , Chief Coroner, Province of Ontario, Canada,May 21, 2009, (accessed November 1, 2011).


Chris D. Lewis is commissioner of the OPP. This is an edited version of an article first published in (Dec. 2011, Pages 80–84).

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