Growing up in Baker Lake, Nunavut, Sgt. Yvonne Niego remembers visiting the RCMP detachment with her father to get a feel of each new incoming member.
"From a very young age, I would go to the detachment and see that the RCMP officers were very honourable, caring people but also that they didn't have the knowledge or history of the community," says Niego. "There was a communication barrier."
Inspired by her interactions with the police, Niego turned the desire to break down that barrier into a career, starting as a summer student with the RCMP in 1989 and attending Depot two years later.
Since then, she's been the first Inuk female member from Nunvaut to be promoted to corporal, and then sergeant, and last year, she was awarded the International Association of Women Police's Community Service Award.
Making a difference
Niego, now the V Division community policing and media co-ordinator, has devoted her career to bridging the differences between Nunavut's Inuit communities and the members that police them.
After finishing her field training, she was posted to the Iqaluit Detachment, where now M Division Commanding Officer C/Supt. Peter Clark was the corporal. He says it was clear from the start that Niego had a solid future as a police officer.
"Right away, she struck me as being a very high-potential individual," says Clark. "Yvonne was somebody we could turn to and we knew we'd get a well-thought through, soft spoken, articulate answer."
Niego's become known for encouraging that potential in other members. "When I was younger as a member, I wanted to do it all," says Niego. "Eventually, you learn you can't do it all, you need other members with the skills to do the same work and so my focus turned to help teach other members how to do what I did."
Part of her role includes working with the provincial health and education departments to modify the RCMP's Aboriginal Shield program to include culturally relevant material for the Inuit youth it targets as well as taking on the position of president of Nunavut's Embrace Life Council, a non-partisan group created to advance the territory's suicide prevention strategy.
Substance abuse, bullying and suicide are huge issues in Nunavut. Since the territory was created in 1999, they've reported 500 suicides. With a population of less than 32,000 in total, that's a staggering rate. Niego sees the RCMP's involvement with the Aboriginal Shield and the Embrace Life Council and various other community initiatives as crucial to turning around the statistics.
"Our members are very engaged in our communities, but with an outside perspective, they can look at things a bit more objectively," says Niego. "The statistics we have we can communicate to the stakeholders, the people wanting to make a difference in the community."
Supt. Maureen Levy, the CROPS (criminal operations) officer in V Division, says Niego's commitment to the work is inspiring to those around her.
"She'll do whatever it takes to make the communities more vibrant and healthy," says Levy. "I see her actions and it's totally infectious. We kind of emulate her because the way she gives, we want to give."
Niego says what keeps her motivated is thinking of the kids back at her home community of Baker Lake. "Not everyone had the chances I did," says Niego. "Just knowing that our kids in the North have gone through a lot of hardship and need a role model, they need a path to follow that is inclusive of both the old ways and the new."
Clark says that sincerity and desire to connect with and care for her community was something that set Niego apart even from the early days of her career.
"I've supervised many cadets and many young members over the years," says Clark. "And some just seem to really get it. Yvonne gets it. And if you've been around regular members, to say somebody gets it, that's one of the highest compliments we can give each other."
As a manager, Niego says her philosophy on leadership is what has been key to her success.
"It's about reaching out to people, but also letting them reach in," says Niego. "You can't make a difference without being open yourself."
Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 1, 2015).