The author conducted research for this article during a trip to fly-in First Nations communities at the invitation of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service. The subjects of this article did not review or approve this story prior to publication.
BEARSKIN LAKE, EABAMETOONG, AND SACHIGO LAKE — Five hours into an armed standoff, Cory Roberts, a detective constable with the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, was still on his own: backup had not yet arrived.
It was 5:30 a.m. on January 13, 2015, in the remote Neskantaga First Nation. Since just after midnight, Roberts, stationed alone in the fly-in community located 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, had been trying to contain a shooter: the man had fired 30 or 40 rounds during the night — five at Roberts. It was -25 degrees Celsius without the wind chill, and the officer’s radio battery was beginning to patch in and out. The minutes felt like hours.
“You’re not thinking anything other than ‘Just stay alive,’” he says of the wait for backup. “I never got a straight answer to what happened.”
The Ontario Provincial Police’s Emergency Response Team arrived as the first round of backup at 6:45 a.m. By the time the OPP’s Tactical Response Unit arrived, 18.5 hours had passed since the first shot was fired — the OPP’s TRU teams are based in London, Orillia (35 kilometres north of Barrie), and just outside of Kingston. NAPS and OPP’s ERT officers had already talked the man into surrendering.
The incident occurred more than a year after an inquest into the 2006 death of Bruce Moonias had condemned the 18-hour backup response time. On the night of December 9, shots were heard coming from his house, but police didn’t make contact with him until 15 hours later — there was only one NAPS officer stationed in the community. When additional NAPS officers, and two OPP teams, arrived at the scene, officers found him with a self-inflicted gunshot wound and he died two days later at a hospital in Thunder Bay.
According to NAPS Chief Terry Armstrong, the majority of officers work alone in the 35 First Nations it polices — even if two are assigned to a community, only one would be on duty at a time. Most of the time, at least one of those communities doesn’t have a physical law enforcement presence at all.
He recounts an instance in which one of his senior officers responded to a homicide in Fort Severn First Nation. The victim was taken to the nursing station, and the suspect fled, presenting the officer with at least three crime scenes. At that moment, a gun call came in.
Armstrong took the call for backup, but a November storm prevented officers from flying the 300 kilometres from Sioux Lookout, so the officer was forced to manage the situation alone from 9 p.m. until 1 p.m. the following day.
“That happens time and time again,” he says. “I’m not just concerned about the officer. I’m concerned about the safety of the community, and I’m concerned about the evidence. I don’t want to be the chief of police who has to go back to the community and say, ‘That’s the fellow or lady there who killed your son, daughter, brother, or sister, and they’re walking around because we didn’t have the resources to do the investigation.”
According to Public Safety Canada, crime rates in First Nations communities are declining, but remain four times higher than the average municipal rate for the country. Violent crime rates are six times higher on average. Armstrong sees the emotional toll it takes when his officers work without support or camaraderie. Fifteen of NAPS’s 160 officers are currently on leave for post-traumatic stress — twice as many as a year ago.
Some communities work with trained civilian peacekeepers, who can assist police in emergencies, but NAPS officers often have to rely on elected leaders to organize volunteers to watch detainees while they attend other calls. In extreme cases, chiefs and councillors have been performing what would be defined as frontline police work.
In May 2016, Gary Kaminawatamin, a band councillor in Bearskin Lake First Nation, located nearly 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, found himself taking on responsibilities well beyond his job description. A man had barricaded himself inside a house. Armed with a rifle, he was threatening his neighbours and officers via Facebook. He was an opioid addict and says he was a victim of Ralph Rowe, a former Scoutmaster and ex-Anglican priest who is suspected of having sexually abused hundreds of boys across Ontario’s remote north in the 1970s and 80s (he has been convicted of 60 sexual assault charges). Kaminawatamin, holding a police radio, hid in the bushes outside, and then helped contain the man until backup arrived and the situation was defused.
“I grew up with him. We played as kids together,” Kaminawatamin says. “I just wanted to make sure he was safe and surrounding houses and people were safe in that area.”
Since they were conceived in 1992, Ontario’s First Nations police forces have been designated as “programs” rather than “services,” meaning the standards of the Police Services Act don’t apply to them. The Safer Ontario Act announced last Thursday by Public Safety and Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde will require “equitable” standards for these police forces — but meeting those standards will be difficult and expensive.
In 2016, the Ontario Provincial Police estimated it would cost between $70 and $80 million per year for it to run the service NAPS operates on $27 million. NAPS’s budget has increased only 10 per cent since 2007. Over that time, NAPS’s aircraft costs have increased 22 per cent, while energy costs have increased 241 per cent and officer payroll costs have increased 486 per cent.
The detachments that remain from NAPS’s early days in the mid-1990s are former houses that were converted to accommodate cells and offices. Regional media reported that the conditions of the Bearskin Lake First Nation detachment and officer accommodations “shocked” Chief Jeff McGuire, then-president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, when he toured the community in April 2016. In 2015, $77,000 was spent removing mould from its walls, but water still leaks into the station through the roof. Its sand-floored garage is unsuitable for vehicles and has no door into the building.
Its tin-walled cells are dark. The bars on their doors are being replaced with solid steel elsewhere in the province because they present a hanging risk — Armstrong has personally cut the clothing of detainees attempting suicide. There’s no sprinkler system in the building, which concerns Constable Marshall Sparks, because the Kashechewan First Nation detachment also didn’t have a sprinkler system when it burned down in 2006. That fire killed two men in cells and badly injured an officer who tried to save them.
“The cells need work. They’re not secure,” says Sparks, who has been stationed in Bearskin Lake for four months. “There isn’t even any lighting in there.”
“It’s a deathtrap.” Armstrong adds.
The detachment at the top of NAPS’s list for replacement, Sachigo Lake First Nation, 60 kilometres east of Bearskin Lake, also lacks a sprinkler system. A 2001 federal consultant’s report estimated that the building — which has extensive water damage — could be used for five to 10 more years. Sachigo Lake Chief Titus Tait is as worried about fire as he is about the possibility that a new detachment might not be funded before winter and that the short ice road season might put off construction for another year. “The recommendation I clearly remember was, that should never happen again,” Tait says, referencing the inquest that followed the Kashechewan fire. “We should put new modern detachments in the First Nations territories, and nothing has happened. I always wonder, why are we falling for all these inquests when nothing happens, and no one follows through with the recommendations?
The condition of these detachments is in sharp contrast to the new $3.5-million facility in Eabametoong First Nation (Fort Hope), located 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.
Constable Andrew Dunn was stationed in Eabametoong in 2011, a year before the regional commander condemned the former detachment because of health concerns caused by oil seeping into building’s foundation. The building had originally been the officer’s residence, but when the community’s original detachment was abandoned in 2001 because of its poor condition, the officer’s residence became the new police station.
While chief and council arranged for two trailers to be converted into cells and administrative space, officers lived in the community’s hotel.
A 2014 Auditor General’s report described the trailer facilities as “deficient.” The cells were too small; plastic walls erected to cover exposed bars made ventilation inadequate. The narrow hallways posed a danger to officers moving prisoners. There were no rooms that could accommodate private meetings with victims, witnesses, or suspects. Dunn recalls that mice were a problem.
The bricks-and-mortar building that replaced it in October 2015 has joined Moose Cree First Nation as one of NAPS’s flagship detachments. The building is equipped with modern cells outfitted with video surveillance, a reception area that meets OPP Accommodations Guidelines, heated floors powered by a stand-alone diesel generator, and a heated garage with doors leading to the cells.
The building allows witnesses and victims to be separated from those in custody — Dunn believes this make members of the public feel safer and therefore more willing to engage with the police. Most importantly, he has seen a boost in officer morale.
“You wake up every day and feel professional,” Dunn says. “NAPS officers have always been good at surviving and doing their jobs with all the odds stacked against us in terms of the facilities we’ve had, the hours we work, the staffing levels we have. This [detachment] allows us to come back and do a professional job. We have the equipment. We have the infrastructure to do the job. It’s a matter of pride.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.