Residents of Quebec First Nation don’t want an outside police force any more
By Christopher Curtis, The Montreal Gazette, August 8, 2013
MONTREAL — For many of the non-aboriginal police officers who patrol Canada’s reserves, their first meaningful encounter with First Nations culture comes when they’re wearing a badge and a gun.
It’s a fact that can strain the relationship between police and aboriginal communities. This hasn’t traditionally been a problem in Quebec, where the vast majority of reserves are staffed with aboriginal police forces.
But residents of one Quebec First Nation say they don’t want an outside police force in their town any more after an alleged incident of police brutality was caught on tape.
The video captured what appears to be two Sûreté du Québec officers beating an Innu man in the streets of the remote Unamen Shipu territory. In the shaky footage, one officer pelts the man with baton strikes as he lies on his back squirming. The other police officer has her knee on the suspect’s stomach and appears to punch him in the face repeatedly.
Since July, when it was shot, the video has gone viral, prompting an internal investigation. The SQ confirmed Tuesday that the probe could lead to sanctions or even criminal charges against the officers allegedly involved in the beating. However, leaders within the community say that won’t be enough.
“At its core, the problem is that the SQ doesn’t really understand much, if anything, about this community,” said Raymond Bellefleur, the grand chief of Unamen Shipu. “Police come here and they can’t speak the Montagnais language and they never stay for more than a week. How can you effectively patrol a place you know nothing about?”
The SQ has been in Unamen Shipu since 2008, when the reserve’s local police force was disbanded due to budgetary constraints. Though provincial police maintain a year-round presence in the North Shore village, none of the officers are permanently stationed there.
“We rotate people in and out, some of our people have been in the territory many times but nobody stays long-term,” said SQ Sgt. Nathalie Girard. “The staff is constantly changing.”
Because officers have to be flown onto the reserve, they usually work for seven to 10 consecutive days before returning to their permanent posting in another region. The short-term nature of their presence in town doesn’t give the officers much time to build a relationship with the 1,000 Innu who live in Unamen Shipu, according to Bellefleur.
Before serving as grand chief, Bellefleur was a police officer on the reserve’s aboriginal force for 17 years. He acknowledges that the job came with a number of challenges because the reserve’s population is disproportionately young and impoverished. But Bellefleur says his force did a more thorough job than the SQ is doing.
“Let’s say there was a fight somewhere in town, just by hearing the voice on the call I could tell you exactly where it was and I’d be there in a minute,” he said. “Whereas with the SQ, they have to deal with calls coming from people who only speak Innu. I’ve tried making a compromise, you know, suggesting that the police at least hire a dispatcher that can speak Innu but I haven’t heard back from (police) yet.”
The SQ’s strategy in Unamen Shipu contrasts with the methods of the Ontario Provincial Police. Officers stationed in remote communities in that province must spend up to six years at their post before being transferred. OPP cops are also given courses on aboriginal culture and the police force has a program designed to recruit from Ontario’s First Nations.
“If we can have people in a community that are from that community then it makes for the best possible situation,” said Jim Christie, president of the Ontario Provincial Police Association. “To a lot of officers who come from say Toronto, the north is Muskoka. It’s cottage country just a few hours away. So try 20 hours and a plane ride, it’s a shock. So we make an effort to include aboriginal police and to sensitize non-aboriginal police to their new environment.”
Christie says the conditions non-aboriginal police face while living on reserve can be extremely trying.
“There’s a bit of a fishbowl effect. You’re one of maybe two or three officers in town and you’re living in a home that’s often much nicer than the other houses on the reservation so you’re very visible,” Christie said. “And on a human level, you’re seeing a lot of poverty and that’s tough to watch.”
Because there are so few cops on the reserve, Christie says OPP officers will often carry their radios with them when they’re at home or during a day off. For a lot of those police, it becomes as though they’re always on the job, as though they always have to be hyper-aware.
“The last thing you want to do is leave a fellow officer alone, so it’s tough to settle down,” Christie said. “But I hate to make it seem like it’s all bad. A lot of our members go (north) planning on staying for just a few years and they spend their entire careers. They raise families in the north.”
It’s unclear if the SQ offers its officers any kind of aboriginal culture courses before serving on a reserve since the department only polices six of Quebec’s 30 First Nations. However, officers trained at Quebec’s national police school in Nicolet do undergo extensive sensitivity training.
“At the end of the day … it’s hard to deny there’s a language barrier, a cultural barrier and racial profiling,” Bellefleur said. “To me the best way to solve that is to reinstate an aboriginal police force.”