Federal government wants actions plans from communities before renewing deal
By CHRISTOPHER CURTIS, The Gazette (Montreal)
Quebec's aboriginal leaders fear police departments in 26 First Nations communities could be at risk if a funding agreement with the provincial government isn't reached before next Monday.
The provincial and federal governments were set to renew a deal to finance the aboriginal police forces this month but negotiations fell apart at the 11th hour, says Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations.
"Everything was going to be renewed but, with just a few weeks until deadline, the feds came in and said their funding was conditional on action plans from the 26 communities," said Picard, Grand Chief of the AFN-Quebec/ Labrador branch. "They didn't give us much of a warning, not even a few months. It's fine if they need an action plan, but giving us just a few weeks to come up with one? It's problematic to say the least."
It costs about $60 million per year for the aboriginal reserves to police themselves - a bill split evenly between the federal and provincial governments. In all, about 250 police officers are affected by the agreement. Although the majority of Quebec's First Nations reserves are covered by the deal, some territories are policed the Sûreté du Québec and others have their own arrangements with the federal government.
Advocates in favour of the agreement point to the importance of having cops who understand the cultural and linguistic uniqueness of aboriginal territories.
"If you come here straight out of the police academy and you've never set foot on a reserve, you'll have your hands full," said Christian Awashish, grand chief of the remote Opitciwan territory, about 700 kilometres north of Montreal.
"This is a community where poverty is the norm and that comes with a lot of baggage. Some of our elders only speak Atikamekw and we need cops who can communicate with them or at least understand their reality."
There are about 17 police officers assigned to the Opitciwan First Nation, which sees its fair share of crime for a logging town of about 2,100. Awashish says about half his town's police force is made up of local men and women.
In February, police broke up a drug ring after a young woman was caught selling cocaine in the parking lot of the Opitciwan arena during a hockey tournament. The previous day, a man was detained after police seized half a pound of cocaine from his home.
"Just a few weeks ago, our officers had to make 21 court appearances," Awashish said. "We see a lot of assaults, conjugal violence, many of the problems that come with rampant poverty. If our federal and provincial funding dries up, we can't afford to pay police out of our pockets. And if we can't provide our community with the most basic protection, how can we fight the bigger issues that plague us?"
A spokesperson from Quebec's public security ministry said that even if an agreement isn't reached by Monday, provincial funding for the police forces will continue for at least one more year.
"Discussions are ongoing with the federal government and aboriginal leaders in hopes of reaching an agreement," said Quebec public security minister Stéphane Bergeron, in a written statement.
While the minister seemed confident a deal can be reached before next Monday, he said federal budget cuts in provincial policing aren't helping the relationship between both governments. Bergeron said he was particularly upset with the federal government's decision, last Thursday, not to renew funding for police recruitment in Quebec.
Despite the minister's frustration with Ottawa, it appears there have been problems between his department and certain communities leading up next week's deadlines. Staffers from Bergeron's office were supposed to finalize the deal in Opitciwan last Wednesday but had to cancel at the last minute.
"Apparently they had to restructure the financial underpinnings of the deal, but it shows that we're just not a priority to this government," Awashish said. "The problem needs fixing not the blame game."
A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada said the policing agreement will be in place for 2013-14, but would not comment on the details.