Members of the Eeyou Eenou Police Force (EEPF) hope a new union contract will help better protect them from the risks that come with their duties. The Eeyou Eenou Police Association signed its first collective agreement with the employer – the Cree Nation Government – in August, after negotiations that dragged on for 18 months.
“It was quite a long process,” said association president Shannon Nakogee, an EEPF constable in Mistissini. “It was something we looked into for a number of years and it was just a matter of knowing which federation would be the right one to get involved with.”
The new union joined the Fédération des policiers et policières municipaux du Québec April 1. The FPMQ is an umbrella grouping of municipal police associations across the province that provides expertise, information and other services to member unions.
Nakogee and vice-president Bianka Sharl-Roy led negotiations with the CNG, which was represented by executive director Bill Namagoose.
In an interview, Namagoose questioned the need for a union but said he respects the democratic choice made by the force’s officers.
“No employer agrees to have their employees join a union,” Namagoose said. “We thought there was no need. Working conditions were good. Salaries, benefits, pension plan were good. They got early retirement. We have no problem with it, but we didn’t think it was necessary.”
Nakogee expressed great admiration for the CNG and believes they are worried that other Cree departments might follow suit. He supports their right to unionize, and says the move by his members will help better protect job security.
“The major part of it was how things would be handled if investigations are required against police officers,” explained Nakogee. “You’re not just going to be suspended without pay. We wanted to make sure that things were handled fairly, that there is somebody there to protect us. In the past, police officers lost their careers because of allegations.”
Nakogee said the agreement also resulted in improved working conditions, including salary increases. This year’s MMIWG (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls) inquiry report noted that “chronic underfunding” of Indigenous police forces led to recruitment and retention issues, a shortage of human resources and training, a lack of female and Indigenous officers, and poor communication between departments.
However, Namagoose countered that the Crees have had adequate budgets since they began negotiating collectively in the 1990s. Police budgets and salaries are dictated by agreements with the federal and provincial governments, which flow from the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA).
“Since we decided to negotiate collectively, budgets have doubled,” asserted Namagoose. “We have good agreements with Canada and Quebec – better than other First Nations agreements across Canada. The Crees are gifted in negotiating. The difference in terms of resources between the Anishinaabe Police Force in Ontario and the Eeyou Eenou Police Force are night and day.”
While a regional police force was provided for in Section 19 of the JBNQA, each Cree community was individually responsible for policing until the signing of the Paix des Braves agreement in 2002. Local police forces were finally amalgamated in 2011 into the EEPF, which now employs over 500 people, including contractual and casual workers.
In his testimony before the Viens Commission last year, EEPF Director David Bergeron noted the “extreme difficulty” of recruiting Cree officers because of the provincial police academy’s inability to provide training in English. This results in hiring more non-Indigenous officers, who are unfamiliar with local realities and tend to “over-criminalize” Cree youth.
Nakogee was hopeful that adhesion to the FPMQ will make policing a more attractive career choice for recruits from Eeyou Istchee. As about 90% of EEPF officers are English speakers, he believes one of the best parts of unionization is the promise of accessing English resources.
“With the FPMQ, we’re able to make that change to having the available resources for our officers to go into English programs,” explained Nakogee. “That’s a big bonus for us. The FPMQ is really trying to get us involved in there and looking at the needs we have over here. I hope the new changes will promote the younger generation to start getting into the recruitment programs we have now.”
The inherent dangers of policing in remote areas was recently demonstrated when a six-hour standoff with an armed man near Mistissini forced the closure of surrounding highways and evacuation of nearby cabins.
On September 5, Nakogee was among the officers at the scene in Perch River, an area near Mistissini that is home to a predominantly elderly population. With the assistance of a Sûreté du Québec tactical team, the intervention ended with the arrest of a 30-year-old suspect.
“There was a great number of shots fired by the individual, none by our officers,” explained Nakogee. “These shots were fired everywhere and also towards police. We are very fortunate that no one was harmed. There was no explanation what led to this.”
Although this was an exceptional situation, Nakogee believes officers were becoming hesitant to use force when necessary, which was sometimes affecting job performance. He thinks having a union on their side will better protect officers from potential allegations of power abuse or use of excessive force.
Namagoose, however, disagreed that there was insufficient support for police officers.
“When they encounter citizens and a police officer is harmed by a Cree citizen, we would support and protect the police officer,” stated Namagoose. “If legal action is taken against the police officer, we would support the police officer. They don’t need a union to do that. We’re the employer and if our employees are abused, we support the police officer.”
The new collective agreement covers the next three years, while talks on the next contract will begin in two years.