Attitudes, legislation, rules slowly changing

Cst. Colinda Williams-Freeman, Insp. Farica Prince and Cst. Samantha Pedersen pose for a photo.

There seemed to be good news in regards to the Blood Tribe Police Force in southwest Alberta as the provincial government introduced and tabled Bill 38 the Justice Statutes Amendment Act, in the legislature.

“With this legislation, the Government of Alberta acknowledges the valuable role First Nations policing plays in keeping their communities safe. These changes will ensure First Nations police services and the communities they serve can benefit from our efforts to modernize policing in Alberta,” said  current Minister of Justice Kaycee Madu in a statement released to the media at the end of October. 

It sounds good, but there is a wait and see approach but according to Blood Tribe Inspector Farica Prince, there has not been a lot of work done since the initial 1991 First Nations Policing Program (FNPP) when First Nations policing was initially organized. This new bill would name them in the provincial Police Act and the hope is not only would they not have to reapply for funding every five years like they do now, but would all First Nations forces to access any resources like they do now. Last year was the first time in recent memory they were granted extra funding to add five more officers. 

“The longer the government sees us as a program as opposed to an essential service, it is just reinforcing the narrative that public safety in indigenous communities is not as important because they are not deeming us as essential. It was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2019 mandate letter to minister Bill Blair (Public Safety) that First Nations Police Services need to be declared “essential services” and yet we are still not there yet,” explains Prince in a phone interview Nov. 19. “There was talk about it happening this past summer at the height of the racial tensions in North America, but it still hasn’t happened. That’s on the federal level but on the provincial level the recognition under the Police Act is not directly linked to funding and it should be.”

There are 37 Blood Tribe police officer positions including a couple of current vacancies and there is a new recruit going into training next month. There are approximately 25 civilian staff and are not funded to have their own dispatch centre. However they have a full operational communications centre which is paid for out of their normal operating budget. Nothing extra comes from government funding to pay for this communications

“Our police officers and our community members need that local knowledge when navigating police officers to the community to get to emergencies so Blood Tribe is the largest First Nation community in Canada land base-wise (180,000 hectares, 695 square miles) and so from when end to the communities to the other, it is not a small community, it is huge,” explains Prince. “So, the local knowledge in our direction giving, the local knowledge in the people, the history is super important and we have maintained that commitment to maintain our communications centre.”  

Prince is in charge of the administrative support division, which is responsible for everything outside the direct investigative group. Her responsibilities includes the court unit, record management, victim services, 24-hour cell block, full communications dispatch centre, crime prevention initiatives as well looking after any policy or treaty issues that involve the police force. 

Prince also handles recruiting. Under Prince’s management, the number of women serving as officers was at 6 per cent and is know up to 25 per cent.

Prince says times have changed. While it was a start to get the Policing Program off the ground, it had its flaws. 

“The creation of the (First Nations) Policing Program (FNPP) was the best case scenario at the time. This was 1991 early nineties, best case scenario at the time but when you look at the early nineties till now, the FNPP hasn’t changed, society has. Organizations have. Many of the many of the First Nations Police Service that were created under that FNPP were unsuccessful and there’s actually scholarly articles done on why First Nations Police Services were set up to fail. They were set up to fail,” explains Prince. “They weren’t funded properly; they weren’t managed properly; they had either too much oversight or not enough oversight, there were many reasons. But when you look across the country, so many First Nation Police Services failed to survive, failed to make it out of five to ten years of existence. We definitely attribute that to a lack of evolution and growth to the First Nations Policing Program. 

“There’s an argument to be could had about the First Nations Policing Program, maybe it was a pilot program, maybe let’s see how this goes, let’s see how the communities respond, let’s see if this helps the relationship between police and indigenous people. What should have happened was when the government seen it was successful and that communities were responding they should’ve moved it to an essential service and funded it properly and they should have grown with the times. That is where the disconnect was. I don’t think the FNPP was meant to survive this long. I think we should have been rolled into essential service a long time ago.”

The provincial government has thrown the idea out publicly of eliminating the RCMP from Alberta duty and creating an Alberta police force. Prince is not sure how this would affect First Nations’ polices forces in the future. She says other First Nations police officials have been discussing during envisioning meeting talking about best case scenarios of municipal police service vs. First Nations Service. 

In a recent inquiry meeting amongst leaders in the Prince said it was reiterated that First Nations people deserve equal access to appropriate public safety. 

“There’s 64 First Nations plus Metis settlements here in Alberta and I would say that everyone of those communities deserves appropriate public safety. Now does that happen to be in the form of a provincial police service? I don’t know, but what I do know is that the current staffing model of the RCMP uses in the province, and I will speak specifically about First Nations communities, (the RCMP are) policing close to 57 or 58 communities in this province.

“The 3 to 5 year (RCMP officer transferring out model) does not work. It does not work for the indigenous communities and the reason it doesn’t not work is trust. It is has been a tumultuous relationship between the crown and indigenous people from day one. It doesn’t matter what police uniform or police service we are or whether we are Blood Tribe or Tsuu T'ina Nation or Calgary or RCMP, this uniform represents the crown. We are enforcing colonial laws, laws that are not our ways so when you have indigenous services in indigenous communities, you have police officers who have  committed to that community, committed to that organization.” 

Bill 38 sounds good in theory but the talk of a provincial police force, the overall discussions involving the cutting of provincial funding to a lot of programs makes for very uncertain times.

“We have so much work to do to get indigenous communities up to basic levels and I think without investing in indigenous policing, I think it would be taking steps backwards (as in decades),” Prince explains about the possibility of less provincial funding. “I sure hope not, but I mean I don’t know. it would be very disappointing that’s for sure, because we came such a long way with our relationship in our community. It is not just us, it is Tsuu T'ina Nation just outside of Calgary and Lakeshore (near Lesser Slave Lake)… if the government went to a provincial police service without recognizing or appreciating indigenous communities don’t respond well to that style of policing I am not sure that First Nation leaders would sit back and be okay with that. I would have to hold to faith people would know better than erasing us and we would be okay.”

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