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Back to Archives | Back to December 2011 Contents 

Providing Effective Policing for Aboriginal Communities

By Chris D. Lewis, Commissioner, Ontario Provincial Police, Ontario, Canada

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series. In the June 2011 issue of Police Chief magazine, Commissioner Lewis explored subject complexities in his article “Policing Aboriginal Critical Incidents.” In this second article, Commissioner Lewis examines the challenges of providing and supporting regular policing in First Nations communities.

round the world, critical incidents related to issues of indigenous rights or social and economic conditions in indigenous communities often attract national and international media coverage, but day-to-day policing at the community level is rarely mentioned or explored. Many indigenous communities are small and isolated, and their unique needs make the task of providing effective local policing challenging, complex, and often frustrating.

The Ontario Perspective
Ontario, Canada, has the largest indigenous or Aboriginal population of any Canadian province; an estimated 296,495 individuals are identified as North American Indian (First Nations), Métis, or Inuit. Most live in urban centers throughout the province with only 30 percent of this population living in First Nations reserve communities. There are 133 such communities in Ontario, as identified by the Chiefs of Ontario, and 127 of these are recognized under the federal Indian Act.1 Many other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world have similar Aboriginal populations, although individual histories, language, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs vary dramatically.

The Police Services Act of Ontario obligates the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) to provide police services in all parts of the province that are not serviced by a municipal police service. This obligation places the OPP in a unique position with respect to the policing of First Nations territories in Ontario.

Historically, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) provided all police services to Ontario First Nations, in keeping with the view that Indian affairs were at one time considered a federal responsibility. This began to change in the 1960s, when federal financial support for on-reserve policing began to replace direct-service delivery. The RCMP withdrew and, by the early 1970s, OPP officers, supplemented by local community special constables with limited authority, were policing all of Ontario’s First Nations reserve communities.

Fly-in patrol units were established to reach the remote communities scattered throughout Ontario’s far north. By the mid-1970s, these units were logging hundreds of thousands of flying hours supervising local special constables, offering guidance on federal Indian Act bylaw offenses, conducting investigations into serious crimes, and liaising with community leadership on policing issues. The distances, the isolation, the lack of radio communication, and the need to use frozen lakes and rivers as landing strips made for extremely challenging policing conditions.

By 1989, self-policing for First Nations was a growing focus. The Six Nations Police, established in 1989 and located in the southwest part of the province on the Six Nations of the Grand River near Hamilton, and the Akwesasne Mohawk Police, established in 1990 and located in the southeast, led the way as independent police services. In 1992, the concept of community choice and the self-directed policing option were entrenched in the Ontario First Nations Policing Agreement 1991–1996 (OFNPA), considered a landmark tripartite agreement among the federal government, the provincial government and the First Nations. This agreement and subsequent renewals set the stage for a gradual expansion of self-directed First Nations police services in Ontario.

Today, the OPP directly polices 19 First Nations communities, is the administrative support for policing in another 19 OFNPA communities, and provides operational and specialty services support for the 9 self-directed First Nations police services that provide frontline policing to 94 Ontario First Nations communities.

While the OPP no longer provides direct service delivery to most of Ontario’s First Nations, it has a vested interest in the sustainability and the effectiveness of their policing. The priority is community safety, and the OPP continues to help train, support, and advocate for improved conditions so that policing can effectively meet First Nations’ community needs in Ontario.

For a variety of complex reasons, particularly in remote and isolated communities, this remains an immense challenge.

Difficult Conditions

Conditions in Ontario First Nations communities vary greatly. Some, such as Six Nations of the Grand River and Chippewas of Rama near Orillia in central Ontario, are located on good transportation routes adjacent to nearby towns and cities with easy access to a diversified economy and varied educational opportunities. Others, such as Kashechewan First Nation on the shores of Hudson Bay and Pikangikum First Nation in the far northwest, are small, isolated communities accessible only by air and winter roads when the muskeg and ice are firm enough to support vehicles. Educational and economic opportunities are extremely limited.

Social indicators for some of Canada’s Aboriginal communities paint a bleak picture. The 2009 General Social Survey conducted by Statistics Canada found that people who self-identified as Aboriginal were significantly more likely to report being victimized compared to the general population. The survey used a list of eight offenses, including three types of violent crime, four household crimes, and theft.2

In addition, Aboriginal people are more likely to be victims of nonspousal violence and are more likely to report being victimized multiple times. In 2009, 12 percent of Aboriginal people reported being the victim of at least one nonspousal violent crime, which is more than double the rate of 5 percent for the non-Aboriginal population.3

Incarceration rates for Aboriginal people are telling: In 2008–2009, 35 percent of women and 23 percent of men admitted to adult-sentenced custody identified as Aboriginal, while 2006 census data show that Aboriginal men and women make up only 3 percent of the adult Canadian population.4

In 2000—the latest year for which statistics are available—the national suicide rate for Aboriginal people (24 per 100,000 of population) was twice that of the general population and significantly higher in certain communities and subgroups, notably Aboriginal youth.5 In Pikangikum, a small community with 2,334 residents, a recent spate of youth suicides (five within 44 days) led a former chief of the community to make a public plea for help.6

The OPP is currently studying the Ontario assistant coroner’s Death Review of the Youth Suicides at the Pikangikum First Nation 2006–2008, which was recently released, to see how it can help address some of the challenges and contributing factors. The timely report is a detailed and comprehensive review of the deaths of 16 children between the ages of 10 to19 as a result of suicide in the years 2006–2008.7

Pikangikum is policed under the Ontario First Nations Policing Agreement by First Nations Constables employed by the community and supported by the OPP. Because of an extremely high number of incidents requiring a police response, the OPP continues to supplement the provision of police services by sending its own officers to Pikangikum on two-week live-in rotations.

The number of Aboriginal youth in Canada who drop out before completing high school is also high. A 2006 report states that 54 percent of people between the ages of 20 and 24 living on reserves had not graduated from high school. The comparable 2001 rate for all people in Canada was 16 percent.8

In 2001, the national unemployment rate for Aboriginal people living on reserves was 27.6 percent, four times that of the total Canadian work force.9 On northern, isolated reserves, the unemployment rate can be as high as 80 percent, although these populations are more likely to be involved in traditional pursuits such as hunting, fishing, and trapping, which are hard work but are not captured in employment statistics.

Other social indicators for the Aboriginal population can be equally alarming. Many live under crushing poverty. If living conditions—crowded, crumbling housing; inadequate infrastructure; poor-quality drinking water; and limited services—found on many First Nations reserves existed in any part of Toronto or any other large Canadian city, there would be outrage and cries for action.

These conditions—poverty, high unemployment, and limited opportunities—provide the perfect incubator for a growing phenomenon in Canada: organized crime gangs based on Aboriginal identity.

Among other activities, these gangs import and sell illegally obtained prescription drugs in Ontario’s isolated First Nations communities, creating significant social and community safety issues. In October 2010, one remote First Nation community declared a state of emergency, appealing for help to fight a crisis of drug abuse, violence, and arson that plagued the health and safety of the community. Its First Nation police service, Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS), did not have the resources to cope. The OPP joined forces with NAPS and other criminal justice partners, and the partnership has achieved some success in stabilizing the situation and in stemming the flow of prescription drugs into the community.

While the numbers will vary, the social indicators for indigenous populations in many jurisdictions around the world would be equally alarming. Police services responsible for day-to-day policing in these communities and the officers who work there need to understand and plan for these conditions if they hope to be effective.

Recruitment and Retention

The OPP works hard to promote policing as a viable profession and the organization as a viable workplace for people from all backgrounds and regions. But recruiting officers of Aboriginal descent is a struggle for the OPP and for First Nations police services; recruitment from smaller, northern communities is especially difficult. The requisite education level for all police recruits in the province is one factor, given the high numbers of Aboriginal people who do not complete high school. In simple terms, the lower education levels of Aboriginal people means there are even fewer potential candidates from which to choose.

While the primary focus is to recruit First Nations officers from the community or the region where they will serve, some prospective officers likely will not want to police their home communities because it would mean policing their own families. Housing is an issue in virtually every First Nations community, and if a police officer is not from the community being served, adequate housing is rarely available.

Continuity is a further challenge, given that promotion and a desire for broader experience in specialized areas are not easily accommodated in small, isolated communities.

The OPP regularly recruits and sends newly minted officers to postings in many northern communities. Some may already have or soon develop a passion for the north and choose to spend their entire career policing in northern communities. But it is not for everyone.

Officers who are not of First Nations descent may have to adjust to delivering police services in communities with distinctly different approaches to authority, justice, and punishment. Native awareness training is one tool the OPP uses to help officers, in particular those who work in or with First Nations communities, develop cultural awareness and understanding. The training helps to make it possible to address critical staffing needs with officers who can work successfully within First Nations communities.

Adequate Resources

Policing in First Nations communities has to be seen as a desirable work prospect to attract and keep officers. Infrastructure is a critical factor to sustainability of First Nations policing in Ontario, yet many First Nations communities face infrastructure and housing issues that do little for desirability. Adequate funding to affect an adequate level of policing in First Nations communities is essential.

In January 2006, a fire broke out in the cell area of the NAPS building in Kashechewan First Nation. The building lacked a working smoke detector, a fire extinguisher, and a sprinkler, and it burned to the ground. NAPS officers tried to free the two men lodged in the cells but could not unlock the doors and had to flee. The two men perished in the fire and the officers were severely injured. The subsequent coroner’s inquest heard the incident described as “another dark chapter in Canada’s shameful history of neglecting First Nations people” and made 86 recommendations, including 16 grouped under the heading “Adequacy of Resources.”10

In Ontario, 10 First Nations policing agreements, including the 9 self-directed police services and the OFNPA administered by the OPP, are funded by the Canadian and Ontario governments: 52 percent and 48 percent, respectively, for frontline policing. The OPP regularly supplements resources necessary to support the 19 OFNPA communities it administers and, on a number of occasions, has provided officers and resources to support First Nations police services. The existing structure severely limits the ability to adequately address policing needs in First Nations communities. Jurisdictional issues cannot be left to trump the need for workable solutions that address quality of police services and facilities.

Exceptional Incidents

Policing in remote First Nations communities requires a subtle and flexible approach, exceptional judgment, and advanced negotiating skills. Officers who may have just one or two colleagues in the community and are often a long flight from any backup can face situations unheard of in larger centers. An incident in June 2010 in a remote First Nation is one example.

During a domestic disturbance call, one of the two responding officers was forced to strike a subject who was attempting to gain control of the officer’s firearm, which was holstered at the time.

The next day, with a Band Council resolution in hand, an angry crowd of more than 200 residents surrounded the police station, saying the OPP was no longer wanted in their community and demanding that all officers leave. The crowd cut communication lines and disabled police vehicles.

To buy time and calm the situation, the dozen officers agreed to relocate to the airport on foot, escorted by the crowd. At the airport they negotiated with the help of some outsiders respected in the community, but the OPP position was clear: Officers would not leave the community without police service. Eventually, relief OPP officers were flown in. They returned to the police station and carried on with regular duties. The embattled officers left for safety reasons, but continuity of policing was maintained through a difficult and volatile incident.

The majority of community members and the Band Council chief, who was away at the time of the incident, quickly made it clear that the actions of the crowd were not broadly supported and reiterated the desire to have the OPP continue to provide support for the community’s policing.

Later, the officers involved received a letter of commendation from the commissioner of the OPP for their appropriate behavior under extreme duress, their minimal use of force during the lengthy standoff, and their strict maintenance of firearms discipline. The commendation was criticized by some First Nations leadership, underscoring the complicated nature of police work and community relations.

Lessons Learned

Some lessons can be learned from the OPP’s long involvement in First Nations policing in Ontario.

1. Be an advocate. Police professionals and executives must tirelessly advocate in a professional and supportive manner for adequate and appropriate resources for Aboriginal communities. A shrug of the shoulders and passive acceptance of inadequacies are unacceptable.

2. Good liaison officers are essential. Strong, two-way communication between respected individuals is essential. Trained liaison officers can establish this rapport and maintain it in a way that melds with Aboriginal culture and community expectations.

3. Build partnerships. When First Nations leadership in Ontario singled out illicit drug activity in their communities as a major issue, the OPP listened and responded, and in doing so gained the confidence of the leadership and the support of the community for police enforcement action. Partnerships were struck with a variety of law enforcement agencies, including First Nations police services, to make the issue an investigative and enforcement priority. The number of investigations, charges, and quantities of drugs seized represent significant achievements. Acting without partnerships and community understanding, despite the staggering nature of the problem, would have been unacceptable in First Nations communities.

4. Cultural awareness is key. The OPP runs a respected five-day native awareness course open to all officers and civilians, and members of the department lecture on culture and history for all Ontario police recruits at the Ontario Police College. A variety of special events and lectures with an Aboriginal theme are held at OPP general headquarters and at other locations. The goal is to culturally prepare staff for any interaction or assignment with First Nations.

5. Have a long-term recruitment strategy for officers of Aboriginal descent. The OPP respects diversity and strives to reflect the communities it serves in its ranks. Aboriginal people are underrepresented in police work in Ontario, but they are essential to providing effective police service in First Nations communities. Any police service with these obligations needs an effective recruitment strategy to overcome cultural barriers and to position police work as an exciting career choice for Aboriginal youth.

6. Policing First Nations requires special strategies and skills. What works in a downtown urban environment may not work in an isolated, northern reserve. The OPP created its Aboriginal Policing Bureau in 2007 to ensure that the organization was well positioned to support effective policing for First Nations in Ontario.

7. Consider special programs, with a youth-oriented focus. OPP officers created and regularly provide youth programming designed to foster positive relationships between Aboriginal youth and police, build self-esteem in the participants, and help Aboriginal youth make positive lifestyle choices. The goal is to help instil in Aboriginal youth a pride in who they are and where they come from as a building block for the future.

8. Prepare for the future. There are no quick fixes or magic bullets to address some of the significant challenges facing First Nations communities and the services that police them. Establish long-term goals, set priorities, and celebrate incremental improvements.

The overall goal of most if not all Aboriginal communities is to create a safe and prosperous environment in which community members can live and work. Effective day-to-day policing is essential in helping to achieve that. ■


1“Aboriginal People in Ontario: Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs Quick Facts,” Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, (accessed November 4, 2011).
2“Violent Victimization of Aboriginal People in the Provinces,” Statistics Canada (2009), (accessed November 1, 2011).
4Tina Hotton Mahony, “Women and the Criminal Justice System,” Statistics Canada, (accessed November 1, 2011).
5Laurence J. Kirmayer et al., Suicide among Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, The Aboriginal Healing Foundation Research Series (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2007), (accessed November 1, 2011).
6“Rash of Suicides Raises Call for Help,” The Chronicle Journal, September 1, 2011, (accessed November 1, 2011).
7 The Office of the Chief Coroner’s Death Review of the Youth Suicides at the Pikangikum First Nation, 2006–2008 , Office of the Chief Coroner, Publications and Reports, (accessed November 1, 2011).
8Michael Mendelson, Aboriginal Peoples and Postsecondary Education in Canada (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Caledon Institute of Social Policy, July 2006), (accessed November 1, 2011).
9“Review of Aboriginal Human Resources Development Agreements—Synthesis of Findings—December 2004,” Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, (accessed November 1, 2011).
10 Inquest Touching the Deaths of Ricardo Wesley and Jamie Goodwin: Jury Verdict and Recommendations , Chief Coroner, Province of Ontario, Canada,May 21, 2009, (accessed November 1, 2011).

Please cite as:

Chris D. Lewis, "Providing Effective Policing for Aboriginal Communities," The Police Chief 78 (December
2011): 80–84.

Click to view the digital edition.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 12, December 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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