Blue Line

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The struggle for Indigenous police services in Canada


November 29, 2021
By Chris Lewis

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All Canadian communities deserve the same level of adequate and effective policing. The officers that risk their lives to provide community safety also deserve comparable wages, benefits, back-up, training, equipment, vehicles and facilities. There should never be ‘have’ and ‘have not’ communities when it comes to policing.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case for Indigenous communities. Not because of any failure by the good people who proudly serve in Indigenous police services across the country. They are trained in the various provincial police colleges, just like all Canadian police service members. However, several systemic funding and infrastructure shortcomings – combined with the lack of a proper legislative framework to support and enable their work through universal standards – has in many cases led to inadequate staffing, facilities and equipment.

Many Indigenous police services face these shortfalls. Recruiting issues then loom large, creating tremendous challenges in attracting Indigenous applicants from their communities, which are often isolated. Some of these communities even lack running water, which is a significant public health issue. The lure of the higher wages offered in larger centres that better meet staffing, infrastructure, training and equipment standards and personal needs, understandably limit the recruiting pool for Indigenous police services. Retaining officers is just as challenging, as those that do join are often seeking to get a foot in the policing door so they can slingshot to provincial/municipal services or the RCMP at the first opportunity.

Various models for policing Indigenous communities exist across Canada. In Ontario, for example, Indigenous communities are provided policing through self-directed, stand-alone Indigenous police services; Indigenous services that are supervised by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP); or are policed directly by the OPP. In one case, a local municipal police service fills that role for an Indigenous community.

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Most Indigenous communities continually struggle with the same (or worse) drug and gang issues (on a per-capita basis) and above-average levels of some violent criminal offences without the ability to increase their budgets. Socio-economic and mental health issues plague many Indigenous communities, but they most often have very limited access to social services agencies. In many cases, they must be flown to the community. Then on a daily basis, if officers need help with back-up, crime, forensic or emergency response, the provincial police will always respond, but ongoing operational commitments and travel distance may often result in the sole Indigenous service officer waiting outside a gun call or a murder scene for hours – or more. That would seldom, if ever, happen in the municipal policing world.

Imagine if a single municipality was predominantly comprised of a particular ethnic group and was provided with a sub-standard level of policing compared to surrounding jurisdictions. Picture officers there often working alone, covering vast expanses of geography with little or no back up or specialist support, poor radio communications, in some cases with less than adequate police stations and prisoner cells. It would understandably be a ‘racial inequality’ news story of epic proportions. But this continues to be the norm for many Indigenous police services in Ontario and other provinces.

Socioeconomic and mental health issues plague many Indigenous communities, but they most often have very limited access to social services agencies.

In his release of the Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry (2007), the Honourable Sidney B. Linden, Commissioner, referred to the “second-class funding and legal status accorded to” First Nations police services. Yet 14 years later, funding and a lack of legislation governing Indigenous police services remain.

It is good to see that some of these issues are being slowly addressed through increases in the funding provided by the federal and the provincial governments, but things remain far from ideal across the Canadian landscape. As well, some amendments have been made to the Ontario Police Services Act in terms of standards, but individual Indigenous communities have the choice to opt in (or not) to those changes.

These communities want and deserve adequate and effective policing by Indigenous officers that want to live in and be a part of the community, as well as understand the local culture and issues. After all, that’s what regularly happens in non-Indigenous communities. Officers don’t just police the communities, they police with the communities. They coach, mentor and volunteer in many capacities, in addition to being officers.

Somehow, someway, all provinces and Canada need to stop talking about this situation and immediately implement change to address legislative and funding shortfalls before tragedies occur. The communities, their residents and their police officers deserve it.


Chris D. Lewis served across Ontario in the OPP, retiring as Commissioner in 2014. He continues to lecture and write on leadership and policing issues and is the author of the book Never Stop on a Hill. He is also the Public Safety Analyst for the CTV Television Network.


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