In only a few months, a change to the policing model in Oxford House, Man., has dramatically improved work and life for RCMP officers — and their relationships with residents.
Since February, officers posted to the remote fly-in community on the Oxford House 24 Indian Reserve in northern Manitoba, no longer need to live there permanently. Now, every second Wednesday, they fly in from their homes in Winnipeg, work for two weeks and fly back for two weeks off.
The detachment is the second in the province to transition to a fly-in policing model since 2017. A third will be transitioning next January.
The change aims to address the challenge of staffing remote locations such as Oxford House, where getting to and from the community is only possible by air most of the year. Between December and February, an ice road connects the reserve to a highway.
With the old model, we were constantly suffering shortages, we had overworked employees, increased sick leave and burn outs," says Detachment Commander Sgt. Jenny Melanson. She says most shifts had two fewer officers on duty than needed.
To cover all the work, such as guarding occupied cell blocks, officers would frequently have to come in on days off and shift around duties. Fewer officers on the road also meant slower response times and less community engagement.
Those days feel like a lifetime ago for Melanson, who's worked in Oxford House since 2016.
She says the fly-in model sparked a lot of interest and the detachment now has all 10 positions filled. More still are on a waiting list to work in the community where assaults and break-and-enters dominate police calls.
Now, at full staff and with more days off at a time, officers are feeling more rested and their new energy is helping them work better, says Cst. Jesse Stober, who worked at the detachment for two years starting in 2014 and returned last winter after hearing about the change.
Before, we couldn't always get to the property crimes because we were dealing with the violent ones — that's not fair to the victims," says Stober.
He says officers now respond to calls faster and have more time for smaller cases such as broken windows and theft. In the winter, they also deal with frequent drug and alcohol-related offences. Ice roads make it possible to smuggle items into the dry community where they are prohibited by the chief and band council.
As well, having officers spend two weeks at a time patrolling the community has improved relationships between the RCMP and Oxford House residents, according to Stober. He says residents, such as the kids he occasionally plays stick ball with, are more trusting of him when he interacts with them more consistently.
Stober's own kids like having him around longer, too.
It takes a couple days for them to get used to me being gone but, then they're OK with it," he says. "
When I'm back, it's uninterrupted quality time together."
Despite being away from family and friends, working at Oxford House has some perks.
While on the reserve, officers live in double-wide trailers that are located in a fenced area of the community across from the detachment. These patrol cabins are fully furnished, have satellite TV, dishes and cleaning supplies. The RCMP also pays for all food and travel.
Cpl. Jennifer McKinnon worked in northern isolated posts for seven years before transferring to Oxford House in April. She uses her time off to help other detachments that are short-staffed.
I can count on one hand how many times I've taken two weeks off while posted to other detachments, but now I get it every month," says McKinnon.