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AFNQL calls for urgent changes to First Nations policing

BY Patrick Quinn Oct 8, 2021

While the federal government committed last December to introduce legislation making First Nations policing an essential service, the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) is demanding the same recognition from Quebec. 

“The provincial government must recognize First Nations’ right to self-determination and as a matter of course, their governments’ jurisdiction over public security,” stated AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard. “The current climate of confrontation must give way to effective and respectful collaboration.”

A meeting on September 15 between the AFNQL, police chiefs and leaders of several First Nations determined there is a climate of insecurity and a clear loss of confidence among Indigenous communities currently receiving policing services from the Sûreté du Québec (SQ). 

They alleged that policing services in First Nations communities are gravely compromised by constant interference by the Ministry of Public Security and the loss of policing personnel due to subpar working conditions and a severe lack of funding. The AFNQL stated that “discriminatory practices imposed by the current provincial Police Act” could result in a serious policing crisis.

However, a long-anticipated roundtable with Quebec’s Public Security Ministry on September 23 was cut short abruptly after 45 minutes when Minister Geneviève Guilbault was called away to present Bill C-105 at the National Assembly, which aims to prevent anti-vaccination protests outside schools and hospitals. 

“It almost was postponed and cancelled, and the outcome for the chiefs of Quebec was kind of unsatisfactory,” Chief Lance Haymond of Kebaowek First Nation told APTN News.“Lots of work, time and effort put in to get this meeting, and it did not materialize in a way that we had hoped that it would.”

During the brief meeting, participants were able to submit preliminary questions and discuss some topics related to questions of jurisdiction. Since testifying about his community’s unacceptable policing conditions at the Viens Commission in 2017, Haymond said there have been some improvements. 

“I now have four officers: the chief of police and three non-Indigenous officers who travel into the community and work one week on and one week off,” explained Haymond. “While we’re able to increase salaries and attract non-Native police officers, we still struggle with a constant turnover. They come and work for us while they’re waiting for a call from the [SQ] or the RCMP.”

While there was no announcement about when the AFNQL-Quebec meeting may be rescheduled, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Public Security told the Nation that discussions remain ongoing.

“I can’t tell you any specifics, but we have a spirit of moving forward with openness in our exchange to find solutions,” said the spokesperson. “The First Nations are partners. We’re always looking forward to improving every aspect of our relations and way of doing things.”

This summer, both the Anishinaabe community of Long Point (Winneway) and the Mohawk community of Kanesatake made formal government requests for increased police funding due to tensions with the SQ. 

Without a local police force since 2006 because of a lack of funding, Long Point Chief Steeve Mathias said Winneway has to wait up to two hours for the SQ in case of emergency, recently forcing citizens to disarm an armed man themselves. While a pilot project for an inter-community police force could be established soon, important logistical challenges remain to be discussed.

“It’s these discussions we want to have with the government,” Mathias told APTN. “To clarify once and for all how we can better manage community affairs, including public security. The government says it wants a ‘nation-to-nation’ relationship but how does that translate on the policing file?” 

Kanesatake has also ostensibly been patrolled by Quebec police since 2005 but the SQ rarely venture inside the territory’s boundaries. With new openness from Quebec to re-establish an Indigenous police force following a notorious street party this summer, the band council has begun preliminary negotiations. 

“A Mohawk community policing service will not have to navigate the same jurisdictional and political minefields that the SQ have in every one of their interventions,” stated Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon at the time. “Our future service will thus be more focused on prevention, agile, more effective, proactive and will intervene in a much wider spectrum of situations.”

While Quebec announced $18.6 million in funding last December to improve policing in Indigenous communities, establishing a local police force is somewhat complicated by being funded 52% federally and 48% provincially. 

The Viens Commission report regarding systemic racism in Quebec highlighted that recruitment is hindered by small hiring pools and a lack of experience among candidates, low operating budgets and a generalized mistrust of authority. Social proximity is also a substantial challenge – police officers often know the aggressor, the victim and their respective families. 

Former judge Jacques Viens recommended that governments “explore the possibility of setting up regional Indigenous police forces” and expand funding for Indigenous police wages, infrastructure and equipment. He also said Quebec’s Police Act should be amended to acknowledge Indigenous-led forces as “similar to those of other police organizations.”

Despite the difficulties of creating independent police forces, Indigenous leaders are advocating for community-led solutions that are sensitive to their unique cultures. As debates escalate over Bill 96, which would create stricter rules around French use in Quebec, self-determination in policing may become a more pressing issue.

As Montreal Native Women’s Shelter executive director Nakuset recently testified, aggressive assimilation measures could further discourage Indigenous people, who are often already reluctant to engage with provincial police or healthcare, from seeking essential services.

While policing remains an issue even in Eeyou Istchee – Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty said it was the third most common issue brought up during the recent election campaign – Indigenous communities ultimately want their own adequately funded police and institutions. 

“You have to incorporate the community and have constructive consultation,” said former Kanesatake police chief Tracy Cross. “If you don’t, you are setting yourself up for failure. We need laws in place, but our own traditional laws incorporated.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.