Current Problems

Justice (25-42)

Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation charts path forward on safety amid state of emergency

November 17, 2023

Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation wants to move forward on plans to develop a community safety officer program, a training facility and wellness and detox centre in Pelican Narrows.

Author of the article:

Thia James

Pelican Narrows
Community members gather at the October community consultation meeting in Pelican Narrows.PHOTO BY TINA PELLETIER PHOTO PROVIDED /jpg

NationTalk: Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Elder Antonia Sewap rarely leaves her home in Pelican Narrows except to visit family members, out of fear for her safety walking around in the community.

“We’re all affected in our community some way. We have family members that are living in fear, that are not safe in their household. There’s too much of this violence.”

Antonia Sewap

Pelican Narrows is one of eight Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation (PBCN) communities, covering more than 50,000 square kilometres with more than 12,000 members. The Pelican Narrows RCMP detachment has investigated two homicides this year.

PBCN’s leadership declared a state of emergency in October after a 17-year-old boy was killed in Deschambeault Lake, a PBCN community. In January, the band declared a local emergency in Pelican Narrows after a 34-year-old man was killed. The latest state of emergency remains in effect, with curfew restrictions, daily emergency meetings and an emergency operations centre.

In late October, PBCN held a community consultation meeting. Chief Karen Bird said she wanted to hear from people directly about the effects of the violent incidents, and turnout was good.

Bird said she has received continued reports of gunshots on a daily basis. “Right now, people are feeling unsafe, and seeing the incidents has caused a lot of trauma in our Elders and our youth,” she said.

Substance abuse and lack of available housing are factors. Bird said band members are struggling with stability due to lack of housing, and high unemployment is also an issue.

To help address employment, PBCN wants to develop a facility where career training programs, such as teacher training, can be offered. Bird said the band also wants to develop a healing and detox centre for people with addictions.

Supt. Murray Chamberlain, North District Commander for the Saskatchewan RCMP, who oversees all detachments in northern Saskatchewan, said police are one part of a community safety response. “We need support from the communities; we need support from provincial and municipal government agencies to provide options to people to get away from the gangs and the violence. Our role is obviously (the) enforcement arm of it,” he said.

Calls for service to the Pelican Narrows RCMP have been on the rise since 2020. As of Aug. 31 this year, 632 violent crimes were reported in the detachment area.

A lot of factors behind the crime rate are socio-economic and out of police hands, but police can be a partner at the table, Chamberlain said. “Through COVID, we kind of created the perfect storm in a lot of our communities, unfortunately. We severely restricted contact, we restricted face-to-face meetings, we restricted a lot of the programming that is available. Even in communities where there’s limited programming, there was less during COVID,” he said.

“And at the same time, there was a significant amount of money that went into some of those communities, which didn’t help with the addictions and the social issues. As long as we have demand for drugs, you’re going to have the drug dealers, you’re going to have the gangs.”

RCMP are in full support of First Nations’ community safety officer program, he added. The best example of teamwork between RCMP and a First Nation’s CSO program is Meadow Lake RCMP and Flying Dust First Nation‘s program, Chamberlain said.

PBCN hired an emergency coordinator and a community safety officer to coordinate the development of its CSO program. Like James Smith Cree Nation, PBCN wants to build toward self-administered policing and is working on an emergency response plan.

PBCN wants a CSO program with officers recruited from its membership, who can be offered housing for stability, Bird said. PBCN wants each community to have its own CSO and emergency planner, but there’s no funds to support that, she added.

“Where the crisis is — which is Deschambeault and Pelican — that’s where we’re focusing.”

Horace Ratt, a retired Prince Albert police officer hired to establish the CSO program, said he’s actively looking to recruit community members. He’s waiting for the Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety to approve a designation that will allow him to serve in uniform, he said, adding that the ministry approved a business case to establish a CSO program.

CSOs can carry pepper spray and batons and can respond to low-risk incidents and enforce certain laws, such as First Nations laws and bylaws. Ratt said they’d be able to free up resources for the RCMP, leaving police to focus on serious matters or proactive work. He’s already established a good working relationship with RCMP, he added.

The CSO program is currently sustained with band funding, but Ratt said he’s hoping for financial support from the federal and provincial governments. “I want to make sure that we build a strong foundation to start the program.”

Several First Nations in Saskatchewan were developing their own First Nations CSO programs and hiring officers before the mass stabbing at James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon on Sept. 4, 2022. Calls for Indigenous-led policing grew after the tragedy.

The Prince Albert Grand Council signed a letter of intent with the provincial and federal governments last fall formalizing an agreement to develop Indigenous-led public safety programs tailored to each community, including self-administered policing. PBCN is a member First Nation of the PAGC. PAGC Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte said the grand council is supporting PBCN’s state of emergency declaration and requests. “We ask for those resources to flow to the First Nation,” he said.

It’s important that PBCN already has two emergency co-ordinators, but they need the resources, which is why meetings with the provincial and federal governments need to happen, Hardlotte said. Next are the interagency meetings to develop the community safety plan.

Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte

A meeting was scheduled for Nov. 9 between PBCN and and cabinet ministers responsible for Corrections, Policing and Public Safety, Government Relations, Mental Health and Addictions, as well as Jim Lemaigre, MLA for Athabasca.

In a prepared statement, the province said it’s investing in RCMP, municipal and First Nations police services and “seeing a big impact from recent investments in new police programs.”

The Saskatchewan Marshals Service (SMS), when implemented, will “enhance the police presence” in Saskatchewan, provide increased support to First Nations and offer assistance to future First Nations self-administered police services, the statement said.

Indigenous Services Canada did not respond to a request for comment.

Sewap said she became emotional at the community meeting in late October, seeing that people have died violently in her community. She doesn’t want to see anyone else die because of alcohol, drugs and violence, she said. “Something has to be done in our community to help these young people, to wake up and do something about our crisis in Pelican.”

Thia James