Friday, September 19, 2014
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Substandard facilities challenge First Nations officers

By Jason van Rassel, Calgary Herald

With its cramped office in the town of Stand Off, the Blood Tribe Police Service is one of many First Nations policing agencies across the country labouring in aging and outdated facilities.

In a report issued last week, federal Auditor General Michael Ferguson identified aging and substandard police buildings as one of the problems faced by the First Nations policing program overseen by Public Safety Canada.

Sixteen communities in Alberta participate in the First Nations Policing Program, which splits the cost of policing in aboriginal communities between the federal government and the province.

The Blood reserve and the Tsuu T’ina Nation west of Calgary are among four Alberta First Nations with their own, self-administered police forces; the remaining 12 participating communities have RCMP officers funded by the program.

On the Blood reserve near Lethbridge, the police service is headquartered in building that was built in the 1980s for an original complement of 12 officers.

The building has had three additions since, but Blood Tribe Police Chief Lee Boyd said it hasn’t kept up with the needs of the department, which now employs 31 officers and a similar number of civilian employees.

“We’ve outgrown it,” Boyd said.

Because of the piecemeal way the office has been built over the years, officers and civilian employees have to pass through the cellblock to get to the front reception area — a potentially unsafe situation, said Boyd.

The cellblock has been updated with security features such as surveillance cameras, but Boyd said it lacks other modern necessities such as a shower and handicapped-accessible cells.

“It’s important our cells be up-to-date and safe (considering) the volume of prisoners we’re handling,” said Boyd, adding the Blood Tribe police processed 3,500 prisoners last year.

The Blood Tribe Police’s budget this year is $5.4 million, with the federal government paying 52 per cent and the province paying the remaining 48 per cent.

But that budget covers operations — capital expenditures are another matter.

The program hasn’t offered money for capital improvements since 2009 and Boyd said the year-to-year tripartite agreements signed between the Blood Tribe, Canada and Alberta are too short-term for risk-averse private lenders to underwrite any projects.

Contract negotiation was an area highlighted by the auditor general, who wrote First Nations aren’t being adequately consulted.

Speaking as a representative of First Nations police chiefs from across the country, Boyd said he’s optimistic the auditor general’s report will result in more stable funding via multi-year contracts.

“We’re hopeful with the guidelines set out in the auditor general’s report, there will be better communications and the ability to have more effective consultation and negotiation of these agreements,” said Boyd, who is secretary of the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association.

With Public Safety Canada accepting all of the auditor general’s findings, Boyd said he hopes government will follow through with more capital dollars.

“We’re hoping in the very near future there will be some proposals to help us access federal and provincial funding to help with a new building,” he said.

Other problems flagged by Ferguson’s report were a lack of transparency in how communities were approved or rejected for funding and there was no reliable way of measuring whether agencies were meeting the program’s core goal of providing policing that suits the needs of First Nations communities.

Alberta Justice Minister and Solicitor General Jonathan Denis said his department will study the federal report and look for ways the province can act.

“Some of the federal auditor general’s findings do concern me and there’s always room for improvement,” Denis said.

But Denis said if more money is needed to improve police facilities, it should come from the federal government.

Alberta is contributing $8.5 million to the First Nations Policing Program this year: “I think we’re doing our share, or more, in this province,” said Denis.

But an expert in First Nations governance said the auditor general’s report doesn’t address a more philosophical problem: trying to deliver culturally appropriate policing via a system still grounded in a colonial mindset.

“They’re bound by federal legislation that in many ways restricts their operations,” said Yale Belanger, an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Lethbridge.

The Indian Act prevents First Nations from raising any money through taxation, leaving many dependent on other levels of government to meet local needs, Belanger said.

“Their funding is always ‘in response to’ as opposed to being proactive. How do you plan for the future? How do you anticipate what’s coming around the corner?” said Belanger.

Casinos — and the revenues that come from them — have been a benefit to some First Nations communities, but Belanger said others are too small or remote to make that kind of venture viable.

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