By Carol Baldwin
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
In a press release from December 16, Saskatchewan RCMP addressed concerns and questions raised by the Statistics Canada report, Firearms and violent crime in Canada 2021, saying that the trends outlined in the report were not surprising to them as they had already identified these exact trends. Most of the increase in firearm-related violent offenses over the past five years, the release said, has occurred in Northern Saskatchewan. Statistics can only tell a part of the story and to understand the complete story attention must be given to the people behind these numbers. C/Supt.
Ted Munro, Saskatchewan RCMP’s Criminal Operations Officer, said, “Our communities can tell you about the fear that firearms and gang violence create. Our police officers will tell you they are seizing more dangerous firearms, including handguns and disturbingly, many sawed-off long guns. These concealable weapons, particularly the illegally-modified ones that could malfunction, present extra risk to our communities and police officers.”
During investigations in 2021, 1377 dangerous firearms were confiscated, however as of December 16th, 2022, that number had already reached 1395, and the majority were non-restricted rifles and shotguns. Firearms-related calls for service are the most serious the RCMP respond to because they pose an immediate threat to public safety and are often unpredictable, therefore they are prioritized above non-violent crime like mischiefs or minor thefts.
RCMP quickly shift its priorities to respond to these incidents and thoroughly investigate them. However, C/Supt. Munro had to concede, that they could do more. “The firearm-related danger and investigational complexities have increased in Saskatchewan. Our resources have not.” This is not news to residents living in rural areas. Over the past number of years, residents in many rural areas have taken note of the decreasing numbers of RCMP members in their communities. In 2019, statistics show that there were 1171 RCMP officers in the province, however, at any given time there are members off on leave and many times those temporary vacancies are not filled leaving detachments to adapt as best they can. In the case of the Wakaw detachment, for example, they have entered into a shared service agreement with the Rosthern detachment.
C/Supt. Munro went on to say in the press release, “Sometimes we feel like we are putting out fires, but it is challenging to address the source of ignition at the same time. With more staff and police officers, we would be more proactive rather than reactive. We would be more visible in communities. We could do true community policing: working more with youth, providing more crime prevention programming, and liaising more often with community leaders and partners to work together to address the societal realities that lead to firearms-related violence.”
Firearms and violent crime in Canada 2021 reported that the highest rates of firearm-related violent crime among the provinces were recorded in Saskatchewan (83 per 100,000 population) and Manitoba (58), and rural Northern Saskatchewan recorded the highest rate in the country (467 victims per 100,000 population) for the seventh consecutive year. Supt. Josh Graham, the officer in charge of Saskatchewan RCMP Major Crimes said the same day the Statistics Canada report was released, “In 2022, we’ve continued to see an increase in the number of homicides. The 11 homicides as the result of the September mass casualty (event) have certainly added to those increased numbers. With under a month remaining in 2022, we have already surpassed the number of homicide victims year-over-year in Saskatchewan RCMP jurisdiction.” He then went on to say that there has been an increase in gang-related or involved homicides and that the increasing number of homicides has not had a corresponding increase in the number of investigative resources. In other words, our provincial policing system is being asked to do more with what has been identified as a shortfall for approximately five years already, while the provincial government has determined to spend new money on developing a marshal service to assist with policing in the province. As RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore asked during a panel discussion on rural crime at the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities midterm convention held in Saskatoon in November, “Why is money being put into creating a new infrastructure with a new police service when we have the infrastructure available? We have vehicles, we have buildings, training is already in place, and equipment.”
Statistics Canada data also shows that three in four homicide victims in Saskatchewan in 2021 were Indigenous people while the number of Indigenous people in the provincial prison system remains around the 75% mark. Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations
(FSIN) vice-chief Heather Bear believes these trends could continue without proper funding to Indigenous community programs, mental health and addictions services. “We are in a critical crisis situation,” she has said. In response to a report in 2020 by Ivan Zinger, Senator Kim Pate, a former Saskatchewan lawyer and former head of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies said, “There’s a lot we should be doing beforehand that would benefit those who are in prison and are in our communities. Those who are struggling because they’re poor because they have mental health issues because they don’t have jobs, all of the things we know we need to work on.” Yet nearly three years after that report was issued, the percentage of incarcerations have not changed, and the help requested by First Nations continues to fall on deaf ears.
Could the tragedy that occurred at the James Smith Cree Nation have been avoided if mental health and addictions programs had been available? If drug and gang-related activities could have been met with community policing from a First Nations perspective?
First Nations and First Nations organizations have long called for fundamental changes to how police services are delivered in their communities, including calls for legislation that recognizes that First Nations policing is an essential service that must be funded accordingly. In a March 21, 2022 news release from Public Safety Canada, it was announced that the Government of Canada is launching an engagement process with input being sought from First Nations, First Nations police services, and representative organizations as well as provinces and territories, “to help inform the co-development of federal First Nations police services legislation.” Anyone with an interest in First Nations police services legislation will be able to share their views which of course, as the government goes, will result in a report which will form the basis for a symposium of legal, policing, and other experts to discuss what was learned before anything tangible will occur.
The First Nations Policing Program (FNPP) which was created in 1991 to “financially support professional, dedicated and responsive policing services to First Nation and Inuit communities in Canada”.
The Program has faced increasing criticism over the years as being inappropriate for funding an essential service such as policing and pits communities against each other in competition for a limited set of funds. In addition, one-third of First Nation communities are not currently covered under the existing FNPP footprint, Metis communities remain ineligible for the Program, and there are no FNPP agreements in Inuit communities in Nunavut and very few in the other Territories. Saskatchewan has one First Nations police service.
The File Hills First Nations Police Service was formed in 2002 and serves five communities located in Treaty 4 in Saskatchewan territory: Okanese, Peepeekisis, Carry the Kettle, Star Blanket, and Little Black Bear. Cst. Kelsey Starblanket Jr. started his policing career with the File Hills First Nations Police Service two years and says that one of the advantages he finds is that he knows the people. “If I don’t know them, it’s easy for me to find out who they are or where they’re from, just from talking with people I know. That rapport I built, it always helps me when I attend calls,” he told CBC after the James Smith tragedy. James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns told media at the time his community needs its own tribal justice system, including some form of police force.
He envisions a police force that would work hand-in-hand with the RCMP, which currently serves the community. That would not only benefit James Smith but communities around the Cree nation too, the chief said.
File Hills police Chief Paul Avanthay believes the police service they provide will work in other communities because it is policing of First Nations by First Nations people. “The model we’re building is, our members are from these communities, and they have that investment and that stake in these communities.”
One thing is certain, there is a definite need for governments to speed up the process and turn talk into action. As Chief Wally Burns said in September, no one in Canada should be afraid to live in their own community.
Carol Baldwin is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the WAKAW RECORDER. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.