Dennis Smith recently retired after a 35-year policing career with the OPP, and Treaty 3 Police. Throughout his career, Dennis has become a respected police officer. He has made a difference in the lives of many and hopes to continue to do so.
Dennis, 62, was born to Billy and Sally Smith (nee Johnson). Dennis has lived his life on Naichtchewenin. His four children, Chad, Dillion, Ryan and Desirae all live in the district. He also has 15 grandchildren.
Dennis grew up in a large family, with 13 children. Although his family was poor, they were able to live off the land. His father cut wood by hand on Alexander Bay. Many times his mom would tuck the small infant of the family securely in a Tikanagon; his mom would chop wood as the baby was placed against a tree and watched. He has fond memories of his mother taking his siblings into the woods to learn trapping, berry picking, fishing, and gathering wild rice. Bedtimes were special – the whole family would sit in a circle, while mom and dad would tell legends. He has warm memories and felt loved.
Dennis’ parents spoke only Ojibway. To this day, when he and his siblings get together they still speak their tradition language, Dennis said proudly.
But it wasn’t all happy times. His parents made home brew alcohol, and when drinking took place, things could get rough. Dennis recalled violence – often the kids would hide under their beds, with Dennis taking the outside to keep his younger siblings safe.
His family was also impacted by residential school.
He remembers the day his Mom told the kids to hide in the attic, as a Priest, an RCMP and an Indian agent crossed the bridge to their home. He sadly remembered peeking through the attic window, watching his older sibling being taken away. Dennis attended the Catholic Day School on the reserve, from grades 1-5. Those years are filled with painful memories of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Recent discoveries of unmarked graves across Canada have re-opened those wounds.
“Because I spoke my Indigenous language, I would be made to stand in the corner all day,” he recalled painfully. “I would not be fed and I would urinate myself.”
Because Dennis’ mother didn’t understand English, she wasn’t able to intervene.
Things changed for Dennis in grade 5, when he started attending Burriss and Cornerbrook Schools.
“My favourite teacher was Mrs. (Mildred) Mose,” he said. “She was kind to me and patient.”
Dennis excelled at public school, hockey and baseball. From there, he graduated from FFHS.
Dennis was employed with a variety of jobs in his early years, including an MNR firefighter, a flagger, guide and car crusher. For four years, he was a bus driver – a job he enjoyed immensely.
At age 27, Dennis started talking to a First Nations Police Officer Joe Forbistor. Joe encouraged Dennis to apply to Police College, and the following year, he did. Attending the 12-week course at London’s Aylmer Police College was a culture shock for Dennis; he had never been in a big city. He was happy to start his career back home.
Dennis has the prestigious title of being the first First Nations OPP officer from the program.
His liaison officer was Walter Wroblowski of the Emo Detachment. Wroblowski handed him a note pad and a pen and said, “This is your notebook – be sure to keep good notes.”
Dennis was first stationed out of the Band Office at the hall on the reserve. One of the most difficult aspects of the job was the fact that he was related to most of the residents, which often meant arresting his own family members.
As time went on, this did become easier, he said.
He was driven by his desire to help people, to show them a better way of life and make the community a better place. Dennis was always willing to listen to people and help. His home was often frequented, and available around the clock.
Although he was gaining respect at work and in the community, and from the outside looking in, things were great, Dennis faced private trouble; at around age 30, he had became an alcoholic. After arriving home from a shift, he would drink and smoke heavily. Looking back, he thinks it was an escape from his job, but most recently, he feels it was to cover up his abuse from Day School. During his heavy drinking days, he would go to work hung over, and he knew his drinking was causing serious family issues. One day it hit him that he was going to lose his family if his drinking continued.
He began his path to sobriety by attending AA, then a Detox program in Kenora and from there, he was sent to a treatment program in Manitoba.
Although he was supposed to stay in Manitoba for a lengthy time, he knew after four days he was okay to leave and he hasn’t touched a drop since; he’s been sober for 35 years and counting. Dennis admitted the first year was difficult, but he doesn’t miss the liquor or cigarettes and most importantly he doesn’t miss being scared of the heavy rattle in his chest.
Dennis makes no bones about the fact that policing is hard on a family. His hours were long, and he was away from home a lot, with lots of travelling. There were even threats made to his family, which he thinks has impacted his kids. It was all part of the job.
Around 2003, the formation of Treaty 3 Police was being discussed. Around that time a Grassy Narrows resident was shot by an OPP officer. After a lengthy inquiry, government officials it would best for First Nations to have their own Police Force. Within a few years, Treaty 3 police was created, and has since expanded to 26 First Nations.
It was the right move for the community and for Dennis – it meant he didn’t need to arrest family members anymore, because cases were handed over to another Treaty 3 officer. OPP and Treaty 3 have always worked together as a team, he said.
Dennis has collected many memories over his 35 year career. He even saved a life. It was in the wee hours one morning on Couchiching First Nation. As Dennis passed a home, he noticed something just didn’t look right. He could see lights on, and the interior seemed smokey. He knew he had to check it out and as he opened the door he was pushed back with the pressure from a fire. Dennis knew the owner, and knew the layout of the house. He crawled along the floor to the bedroom where the man was passed out, surrounded by flames ignited by a lit cigarette. He was able to get him out and save his life. The rescued man offered to buy Dennis a coffee, but bigger rewards were in the works; Dennis was given a Commissioners award for his work and dedication.
Dennis laughed that he’s had many a hair rising experience. But he’s made many friends – some through the strangest ways. Many years ago he stopped and charged Lincoln Dunn near Mine Centre. He was driving at a huff rate of speed. That was their gateway into a long and valued friendship. They became partners who worked hand in hand on Project Sunset. This program was a highlight of Dennis’ career. It ran for five years, teaching local grade 5-8 students respect and self esteem.
Through canoe trips, building bird houses, learning bush survival, skating, knife making field trips, rock climbing in Thunder Bay plus much more, these students, organizers and guest speakers were fulfilled beyond their expectations.
To top it off, every year an awards banquet was held at the Devlin Hall. Dennis is hoping this resumes after Covid; he will be there to embrace it, along with everyone involved.
Helping youth has been a life-long passion for Dennis. He knows the importance of sharing his good fortunes and has opened up his home to medical students attending both Lakehead and Laurentian University. Part of their placement is to live five weeks in a First Nation. His home filled with Indigenous belongings and Dennis’ welcoming spirit.
He has personally coached 17 Treaty 3 officers. This involves mentoring and helping any way he can. Although about half have left the program, he’s happy to say he keeps in touch with most and he will always be there for them.
Along with promoting youth, Dennis believes whole heartily in the importance of preserving First Nations traditions. He is a traditional dancer and he will be attending many Pow Wows, now that he’s retired. He is also the Traditional drum carrier for the Treaty 3 Police. He will continue to be responsible for the drum, which is played at board meetings and special events. Those attending meetings are encouraged to make tobacco offerings to the drum. All new recruits to OPC (Ontario Police College) are given an eagle feather and a case and instructed to take care of their eagle feather. This is a very prestigious offering and an honour of upmost importance.
He feels that understanding First Nations traditions, culture and clans would be a valuable way to ease tense relations between police and First Nations. He’s seen first hand how a lack of understanding and lack of knowing the culture can create a divide.
Dennis has come upon cases where an elderly Indigenous person didn’t understand English and the officer didn’t understand Ojibway, and the situation has escalated as a result. Being bilingual has allowed Dennis to help break down some of those barriers.
Although he’s had good fortune, being a police officer hasn’t been a ticket to get out of regular problems, he said. Dennis has been divorced, and sadly, his ex-wife passed, leaving his four kids to mourn their mother immensely. Even his own sons have had brushes with the law – definitely a low for Dennis in his career.
Dennis feels peer pressure is such a huge reason for kids getting caught up in criminal activities.
He’s watched his job change over the years. Drugs have become more abundant, resulting in more crimes. He’s also seen the erosion of respect in today’s society, and he’s encountered four physical incidents in the last few years.
“I’m too old to fight,” he laughed, showing his muscles.
But there’s a lot of good in the job, and he recommends it to those interested in joining.
“Definitely, it’s a good career, good pay, you can make the world a better place,” he said. “It’s a fifteen week course. Most importantly, it can be very rewarding.”
Approachability is one of the best qualities in a police officer, he said.
“Meet the public, talk with kids, be visible and always try to look more like a person to help people than as a police officer,” he said.
Dennis was honoured by family and friends on his last day of work; he fought back tears from the emotion of the day.
Dennis’ retirement plans involve continuing his morning walk. He’s in good health and physically fit, and hopes to stay that way. He plans on being involved with his grandkids’ hockey, do some traveling, when that’s allowed. He loves his home, his family and friends. He will travel the Pow Wow circuit to dance. He’s already signed up for three fishing tournaments this year.
But the one thing Dennis really wants to do is get his license and go back to bus driving. He liked driving because he loves youth, he feels he can show kids respect and show them the importance of respect.
He laughed as he said, “I’m doing a complete 360 degree cycle. My first job I really loved was busing, then I loved policing for many years … now I’m hopefully back to busing.”
Our district wishes Dennis many happy, happy years of retirement. May you enjoy your full circle!