Third-world conditions taking a high toll on First Nations police force
They work in isolated Canadian communities, alone and without breaks. They deal with severe crimes without back-up or help. They love their jobs, but many don’t know how much longer they can last. They are the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service and they are asking for help.
“We enjoy our jobs, go out there and do what we have to do, but still it can’t continue the way we’re going. Something is going to break,” said Sergeant Brian Wesley, who works in Constance Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario.
Members like Wesley are speaking out about the work conditions, chronic underfunding and non-existent standards they say is pushing the force towards its breaking point and threatening to take the lives of officers with it.
NAPS is the police force that serves 35 remote First Nations scattered across Northern Ontario, many accessible only by air.
For Wesley, it offered him a chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a First Nations police officer and thought himself fortunate his first job was in his hometown of Moose Factory, just across the river from Moosonee, Ont.
But his dream job quickly turned into a nightmare.
While he went to the same college and was expected to enforce the same laws as his colleagues at the Ontario Provincial Police, Wesley’s reality was much different.
But with only two on duty at a time, it was a ratio that kept him working around the clock, often alone.
“We were going from call to call,” he said. “With the lack of funding that we have, we react just to the calls we get.”
Reacting often means showing up in volatile situations alone, no partner, no back-up, not even a two-way radio to call back to headquarters in Thunder Bay.
But escape doesn’t come at the end of a shift. With few replacements and no easy or cheap way out of many communities, the only days off come if there are no emergencies.
And those days are rare in these communities where crime severity ranks as one of the most extreme in the province. Statistics Canada pegs the rating in NAPS territory at more than four times the provincial average.
“It’s not uncommon for officers to have people banging on their doors all hours of the night trying to get their attention,” said NAPS police chief Robert Herman. “It’s kind of being held captive in the community you’re actually policing in.”
He calls it third-world policing, but to Const. Lynda Jack, it’s just another day on the job.
A routine call in her hometown of Attawapiskat, Ont. has seen her have to arrest her own family members because there was no one else to respond.
“If I have dinner with (my family), they won’t bring up the issue. They know, I’m working,” she said.
Officers like Jack often fill the gaps for other services that are not readily available in the North, playing paramedic, firefighter, counsellor, coroner and undertaker.
Jack said she rarely got time off after responding to a trauma to digest what she saw, heard, smelled or felt.
“It’s part of your head, all the time, 24/7. Even if you try to forget it,” she said.
NAPS plagued by stress, PTSD, suicide
The conditions have taken their toll on Wesley, now a 15-year veteran on the force. His marriage crumbled. He started drinking. And the stress took over.
After five years in Moosonee, he was transferred to Constance Lake, but the stress came with him – a memory that still causes Wesley to break down in tears.
“The stress was too much, it started affecting my body, started to come out and the room just spinned out of
control,” he said, recalling the day he finally confided in a colleague.
He took time off and was prescribed anti-depressants, but after five years the cycle started over.
“I thought about throwing in the towel,” Wesley said. “The only thing that actually stopped me was my personal beliefs.”
That wasn’t how the story ended for his friend, Richard Wesley, a rookie with big hopes for the job.
Troubled by the suffering seen on the job and the inequality between police forces, Wesley said Richard Wesley, no relation, fell into a deep depression. He tried to get time off for a stress break, but the force was too short-staffed.
One year later, NAPS officer Pauline Nguyen, 24, made the same choice, ending her life after dealing with work-related stress in 2012.
In Jack’s case, the stress manifested itself as post-traumatic stress disorder – now nearly as common as fatigue and burnout.
After a suicide attempt, the single mother took time off and now sees a counsellor and makes more time for her two children.
“It’s like a bottle, stuff it, stuff all the things in the bottle and then who knows? We don’t know when the bottle is going to explode,” she said.
Cracks in that bottle are already evident. One in five of the force’s 140 officers are on leave, most due to stress. Two officers have committed suicide in the last year. Another four have tried.
Herman, who came to NAPS after three decades on municipal forces, said he can’t recall a single stress-related suicide during his time there.
There is also a 50 per cent turnover rate in the first three years, compared to the 85 per cent that last more than five years in other police forces.
Money, regulation needed: police chief
The force says more money and better regulation can help them turn things around.
NAPS is part of the First Nations Policing Program, funded jointly by the Ottawa at 52 per cent and Ontario at 48 per cent and has a $25 million budget.
But Herman said it is not enough.
“We have huge overhead; our operational costs are extreme as compared to the policing environment and unless we’re properly funded we can’t address all the issues at the same time,” he said.
Regulating it under the provincial Police Services Act, which covers the OPP, would also help, he said, by legislating standards that would force accountability to provide adequate detachments, radio systems and support for officers.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told Global News the government has extended the $120 million First Nations Police Program for another five years. The provincial government has not responded to requests for comment.
But the Nishnawbe Aski Nation doesn’t see much of that trickling down to the police force it is supposed to manage. Ottawa and Ontario agreed to a one year extension of the current agreement with a modest funding increase that the nation says won’t cover their growing costs. A special federal fund that helped to recruit 11 police officers is also being shuttered this year.
The Nishnawbe Nation has issued a public safety alert to Toews and the Ontario government warning that NAPS officers are in “grave danger” and that the Aboriginal police force cannot continue to operate under these conditions.
When asked about the stress and extreme conditions facing NAPS officers, Toews said he hands out the money, the rest is up to the provinces.
In the meantime, NAPS revamped its family assistance program, came up with a critical incidents stress policy and trained an officer to be part of a critical incidents response team.
But it all takes money – money Herman has to find by looking for “efficiencies” in an organization that doesn’t have enough to begin with.