First Nations police in northern Ontario say chronic underfunding makes their officers and the communities they serve less safe.
The 1,600 people of Sagamok First Nation have one police officer looking after them on this day and it’s been a busy one for Sargeant Vern Macumber.
He has responded to a half-dozen calls, including a sexual assault and concerns about a potentially dangerous offender who didn’t show up for sentencing and may now be back in the community on the north shore of Lake Huron.
An 11-year veteran of the Anishinabek Police, Macumber says his job is sometimes like a John Wayne movie. A lone lawman out on the frontier.
“Because you’re the person. That’s it. There’s nobody there to help you,” says Macumber.
“People may be in danger because it’s taking longer than maybe it should for someone to come and help them.”
Morning North11:49Indigenous policing – Sergeant Vern Macumber
We continue our look at Indigenous policing in northern Ontario… The CBC’s Erik White takes you on a ride-along with an officer in the small community of Sagamok where there are a lot of 911 calls. We also dig a bit more into how these First Nations police departments are funded. 11:49
The Sagamok detachment is a small storefront office with little space for interviewing victims or proper storage of equipment. Out front there are two aging cruisers with over 200,000 kilometres on them, one of which doesn’t have a working siren.
“It’s great because you do everything. You’re not just doing the same thing every day. But after a while, it takes its toll on you,” says Macumber.
“It never ends. And after a while, depending on who you are as a person, you can only do what you can with the time you have. Burnout and fatigue is a major issue here.”
The top of his wish list would be a drug enforcement officer to follow up on the tips he doesn’t have time for and combat the opioid crisis that has hit Sagamok hard.
But that would require the granting of special funding, says acting chief of the Anishinabek Police Marc Lesage, as does almost anything above the $13 million in annual funding for the 65 officers it has across the north.
“For anything extra, we’re again having to scrimp and save, do some financial figuring for lack of a better term, to get that done,” says Lesage, adding that funding has been secured for new stations in Sagamok and Nipissing.
The provincial and federal governments split the bill for Indigenous policing in Ontario, which is about $100 million a year.
Peter Nahwegahbo — who represents Aundeck Omni Kaning on the commission of the UCCM police, which protects six communities on Manitoulin Island — says even spending that funding sometimes means jumping through bureaucratic hoops.
“They create a lot more havoc, for lack of a better term, than solutions,” he says.
UCCM Police Chief Faron Whiteye says getting control over their budget is as important for First Nations police as increasing it.
“Not just equal treatment, but equitable treatment as well,” he says.
“Treat us the same way you would treat the others. We may not be funded the same way, but that doesn’t mean the funding can’t roll the same way once those decisions are made.”
It is 5 a.m. and very quiet in Mattagami First Nation, a community of about 190 people off Highway 144 about an hour south of Timmins.
Constable Kip McKenzie has spent the past few hours driving around very slowly and making sure that all is well.
For the past few months, he has been the only police officer for this community and he knows he likely won’t sleep well as he heads to his bedroom in the police station.
“You’re never really off the clock,” says McKenzie, who’s been with the Nishnawbe Aski Police for six years.
“You know you can’t just hang up your belt at the end of the day and get a peaceful eight-10 hours of sleep, because you never know when that call is going to come in.”
Mattagami is one of the only Nishnawbe Aski Police stations that is brick and mortar, complete with holding cells. Most officers in remote communities work out of modular trailers.
Police Chief Roland Morrison says some of those issues have been resolved, unfortunately because of inquests in the deaths of two prisoners who burned in Kashechewan jail in 2006 and a woman who killed herself in Kasabonika Lake in the back of a cruiser where she was being kept because of a lack of holding cells.
“We are seeing a lot of progress in the last five to seven years. And our communities are seeing that. It is a good time to be in Indigenous policing,” says Morrison.
“It is coming, it’s just not as fast as we would like it. Again, we move at the speed of government as well.”
Federal public safety minister Bill Blair says a new framework for First Nations police is needed before they get the funding they need.
“[The way] to make sure we get the best outcome from those investments is to do the hard work of ensuring we build an appropriate legislative framework for support policing in First Nations right across Canada,” he says.
Blair says those discussions with First Nations leaders and provincial governments are underway, but no word on when the proposed legislation would be ready to be voted on by parliament.
“People know it needs to be better,” he says.
“I understand the frustration and even the anger than many feel. I ask them to channel that into working with us to make a difference.”
Morning North8:40Indigenous policing – Bill Blair, Federal Minister of Public Safety
We’ve been hearing about First Nations police in northern Ontario all week and how they operate with less than other police… Now, a conversation with someone who has the power to change that… Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. 8:40