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A female RCMP officer dressed in red serge stands next to an RCMP truck filled with a group of people who are sitting and waving in the back. On the road behind them are other vehicles and a large crowd of people wearing red.

How can police better serve Indigenous communities?

RCMP officers and members of the community of Makwa First Nation wore red and marched together in Loon Lake, Sask., to reclaim the colour that local violent gangs have been using to create fear. Credit: RCMP

  • Sgt. Ryan How, detachment commander, RCMP Loon Lake detachment, Sask.
  • Cst. Chester Williams, Indigenous Policing Services, Merritt detachment, B.C.
  • Cst. Tayte Goddard, RCMP Stony Rapids detachment, Sask.
  • Cpl. Charmaine Parenteau, RCMP Recruiting, Yellowknife, N.W.T.

Every community has its own character and challenges — Indigenous communities are no different. There's never a quick fix or formula to address local problems. We asked four RCMP officers what role they play in improving relationships with Indigenous peoples, making genuine connections and effectively serving their communities.

Sgt. Ryan How

I've worked in Saskatchewan (F Division) all of my service. And all of that time has been in the North District working and living predominantly in First Nation communities.

I can say without a doubt that any success I've had is due to creating genuine relationships first on a personal level, second as a police officer. Usually the two go hand in hand, but unless we're willing to make personal connections, the "professional officer" role remains one dimensional and ineffective.

Part of creating a genuine relationship is honesty and being able to have difficult discussions with elected officials to define where the RCMP will play a supporting role versus a leadership role. This is unique to every community.

I can't solve the crystal meth epidemic. The front-line RCMP officer can't be expected to be responsible for fixing third-, fourth- or fifth-generation alcoholism and domestic abuse in any community. We can't be everything to everyone. Where I believe the RCMP can take the lead is in making it safe for the majority of the community to stand up against violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and other criminal behaviour.

This is the approach we've taken in the Village of Loon Lake and Makwa Sahgaiehgan First Nation.

Over the past few years, the two neighbouring communities have been terrorized by an extremely violent gang that uses the colour red to intimidate and instil fear — red bandanas, red sawed off firearms, red dyed hair, and so on.

Through some hard and emotional conversations with local leaders, we learned the community was ready to take a stand, but was afraid.

The RCMP made it OK and safe to stand up, and planned a march where everyone would wear the colour red and publicly take away the gang's ability to create fear. On Oct. 1, 2019, more than 350 community members wore red and walked alongside the RCMP in their red tunics. This idea has caught on and spread to neighbouring First Nations, who have held subsequent marches against gang violence.

This is only part of the solution, but is an example of what genuine relationships can accomplish.

Reconciliation has been going on every day in hundreds of communities all over Canada, yet it largely goes unnoticed except by the people directly involved. I believe this lack of publicity actually shows that the front-line officers are getting it right and doing incredible work under some difficult circumstances. Reconciliation is truly what RCMP members do every shift.

The RCMP has hundreds of experts in reconciliation working with Indigenous communities who we can learn from. These are, generally, the new officers on their first post creating honest personal relationships with the people they serve. They know that, in isolated areas, they will rely on the community to keep them safe as much as the community relies on them.

We need to continue increasing the supports for these front-line officers and listen to what they have to say to be successful.

Cst. Chester Williams

I'm a First Nations officer who joined the RCMP in 1999. My entire service has been with Indigenous communities.

The purpose of the Indigenous Policing Services (IPS) in British Columbia is to lead and bring proactive, culturally sensitive policing to Aboriginal People and the communities in which they live. We strive to improve relations between Aboriginal People, the RCMP and the criminal justice system through a strong and effective Aboriginal policing complement.

The IPS unit oversees, co-ordinates and delivers services under the RCMP's Indigenous Police Program and First Nations Policing Policy to more than 200 Aboriginal communities in B.C.

This includes recruiting, intelligence gathering relating to Aboriginal issues, program development and delivery, and Community Tripartite Agreement negotiations.

I believe that honesty and integrity play a major factor in gaining trust from the communities we police.

Our role as RCMP officers is to provide communities with the resources to correct issues that they may have had, like drug dealers and bootleggers on the reserves.

We provide programs to the community leaders and tools so they can take charge of the issues and begin rectifying them. We want the community members to have ownership over making the reserve healthy for the young people who will one day be our leaders.

In my 20 years of service, there are three excellent initiatives that come to mind.

The first is in Massett, B.C. Each week, RCMP officers offer to pick up people who are living homeless on the reserve and take them to the community hall and feed them a hot lunch and serve them coffee. This has developed a strong sense of trust between the officers and the community members.

Second, in Hazelton, B.C., the RCMP developed a program called Operation Good Deeds. The detachment identifies three young people who are doing exceptionally good work in their community of Gitskan Nation, and fly them to Vancouver for a weekend to attend an NHL hockey game. It's exciting for them as some families don't have the resources to travel far from home.

Finally, the IPS unit in Merritt, B.C., has designed a hood decal for all IPS vehicles. The decals have the crests of the Upper/Lower Nicola/Shackan and Coldwater reserves. When our community members see the decals on the police vehicles, you can see their pride in knowing their crests are being displayed.

We joined the RCMP because we want to make a difference. Under the leadership of Insp. Dee Stewart, IPS helps us as First Nations officers obtain that goal.

Cst. Tayte Goddard

My experience is based on policing, living and participating in the communities of Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation (MSFN) and Black Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan.

MSFN is a Cree First Nation and Black Lake is home to the Denesuline First Nation. This in itself offers unique social demographics for living and policing, as many traditional, religious and cultural aspects differ between the two. Knowing our communities is important.

As members of the RCMP, we're often thrust into places, cultures and demographics that we're not familiar with. Adapting is a necessity and will dictate our success and job satisfaction.

We must remove our hats as police officers and stand with the communities we serve as participating members. We must contribute.

Through history, the RCMP has had negative impacts on the Indigenous populations in Western Canada. As traditional Indigenous history is an oral recollection, the RCMP's image to our Indigenous communities is often passed down and can be dependent on interactions between people in the past and in present day.

It's important to listen to how members of the community feel towards our officers and policing. Listening to someone explain why they feel or have a specific perception towards something is the biggest step toward respect and reconciliation between our organization and Indigenous communities. Talk is cheap. Saying we are committed to bettering relationships is just rhetoric. Action needs to be shown and practised.

How can we better serve Indigenous communities? Participate in new activities — whether it's a cultural camp to learn how to smoke fish, butchering a moose with youth and Elders, or attending a powwow. Go to meetings with the Chief and council. Most importantly, get involved in community events — not as a police officer, but as the person we are when the uniform comes off.

Indigenous communities rely on trust. RCMP members who establish that will have a much easier time addressing the issues that impact a community, and working with community members towards a solution. Trust gives us the opportunity to speak to people on the same playing field, eye to eye, and in a way that removes the title of police officer. In turn, when someone sees you as a police officer, they can identify a personal relationship to it, which in turn effects the level of trust and respect.

As RCMP officers, we committed ourselves to a job. But we also have a commitment to ourselves as people and community members. We're posted to locations for two, three or maybe five or more years. We need to get out there and participate not just as an RCMP officer, but as a community contributor.

It's a far bigger thing if people remember you by your name and not "that officer" or "the constable." Most communities are small and family oriented. Talk travels fast. Our actions and words may be seen by few, but heard by many.

We must listen and not just hear, and be willing to participate on our personal time. We have maybe 25 years of policing, and time flies. If at the end of the day we can look back and identify one person or community we made a difference to, or positive lasting change in, then our time and efforts are a success.

Cpl. Charmaine Parenteau

I've been a police officer for 15 years. I started working with the Blood Tribe Police Service where I served the Kainai Nation, Treaty 7 land, Blood Indian Reserve 148. I also served Treaty 8 land, which included Driftpile First Nation, Sucker Creek First Nation and Swan River First Nation, all of which are in Alberta.

I'm now posted in Yellowknife, where I serve the entire Northwest Territories as the recruiting officer.

While I've policed and partnered in many diverse communities throughout my service — in townships, metropolitan cities, villages, First Nation reservations and other countries — I've always favored working in and with Indigenous communities. Being Indigenous myself, I'm able to relate to the Indigenous way of life and the issues and problems that some of the communities are facing. I've enjoyed being a part of small positive changes.

My thoughts about how police can better serve Indigenous communities is very clearly identified in the final report of the MMIWG. I will echo the Calls for Justice Section 9 in that final MMIWG report as it speaks volumes in terms of what the future must look like. To be successful in policing Indigenous Peoples, we must know, understand and respect the people we are serving.

I believe the RCMP has embraced these actions in many ways, specifically by educating and providing training to its members about residential schools, inter-generational trauma, reconciliation and healing. That's all part of a very important process to change our way of thinking and to ensure success when it comes to policing and recruiting Indigenous people.

As an organization, we must promote and recruit Indigenous people.

There are many recruiting barriers specific to the territories, some of which are the current prerequisites to apply as a police officer.

This includes having an unrestricted driver's licence. Many of the smaller communities in the Northwest Territories have restricted driver's licences as they don't have the infrastructure to properly practise their driving skills. Some of the restrictions include only being able to drive in those communities.

Despite these challenges, when our applicants have issues with the prerequisites, we work very hard to assist them through the process any way we can. Many of the communities in the Northwest Territories look forward to the day that a community member will be successful in the recruitment process.

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