First Nations police services say Ottawa’s underfunding amounts to discrimination

By Stephanie Taylor

The association representing all 36 stand-alone First Nations police services in Canada is backing a human rights complaint alleging Ottawa’s “deliberate” underfunding of policing in their communities amounts to discrimination. 

Jerel Swamp, who leads the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association, says after discussing the complaint launched by the Indigenous Police Chiefs of Ontario — of which he is also a member — the association’s national executive decided to add its support. It also plans to seek intervener status. 

He said despite assurances from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government that it would enact change and declare Indigenous policing an essential service, nothing has been done.

“What we feel is that all First Nation communities in Canada deserve the same public safety and security as every other Canadian takes for granted,” Swamp said in an interview Monday. 

The complaint filed last week by the nine First Nations police services in Ontario takes issue with the 1991 program the federal government uses to fund its services, and includes participation by provinces.  

First Nations leaders have said for years the program is suffering from a lack of resources. 

An internal evaluation of the program released last year also shows the “finite amount” of money in its budget has led to an underfunding of police agreements, which has created ongoing challenges for First Nations police services. 

The complaint alleges the federal government’s failure to act amounts to “deliberate and wilful discriminatory conduct,” against Indigenous communities. 

“As a result of Canada’s discriminatory conduct, the establishment of equitable policing for Indigenous communities, comparable to the policing and safety the rest of the country experiences, remains out of reach for Indigenous people in Canada.”

“Put simply and tragically: The reason Indigenous people on reserve are not as safe as non-Indigenous Canadians off-reserve is their Indigenous identity.”

The complaint, first reported by the Globe and Mail newspaper, was lodged with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which is the first step in having it land before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 

The federal department of Public Safety has not yet responded to a request for comment. 

The complaint is seeking $40,000 in damages for people living in communities served by First Nations police. 

Indigenous Police Chiefs of Ontario president Kai Liu, who also leads the Treaty Three Police Service in northwestern Ontario, said Monday he believes a new funding formula is needed that is based on what a community actually needs, rather than a figure presented by Ottawa. 

Liu said the federal government approaches funding renewals with a “take it or leave it,” attitude, which does not leave room for negotiation. Such concerns were also flagged in the departmental review of the program. 

“We police 23 First Nations communities,” he said of his own service. “Our response time is anywhere from one to three hours.”

“Because we are understaffed, I don’t have officers in every one of our … 23 First Nations.”

The complaint also points to last year’s stabbing spree on James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, which placed renewed focus on policing and the need to bolster safety in Indigenous communities — improvements Trudeau himself said he committed to making. 

Liu said he and other complainants are “simply echoing what the prime minister has declared, that they need to sit down and listen to what our community needs.”

One of the measures Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino have promised is to table legislation declaring First Nations policing an essential service. 

The government has not yet provided a timeline for when that may happen, only saying it was consulting stakeholders on such a law. 

Swamp noted that last September Mendicino said he would work to table the legislation by the end of fall, which did not happen. He said frustration is growing among police chiefs. 

The federal budget presented last week also did not signal when such a law or new measures would be coming.