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The OPP doesn’t have to enforce First Nations laws. Indigenous leaders say that’s outrageous — and they want the Ford government to act

March 20, 2024

Indigenous leaders are urging the province to make it mandatory for Ontario Provincial Police to enforce First Nations laws and bylaws.

ByRob FergusonQueen’s Park Bureau

Laurie Carr
Hiawatha First Nation Chief Laurie Carr speaks to reporters on Jan. 7, 2020 in Hiawatha First Nation, Ont.Clifford Skarstedt/Peterborough Examiner

Toronto Star: To keep drug traffickers and other criminals at bay, Indigenous leaders are urging the province to make it mandatory for Ontario Provincial Police to enforce First Nations laws and bylaws.

The race is on as Ontario prepares for the new Community Safety and Policing Act to take effect April 1 with optional enforcement of unique laws — such as barring known bootleggers from dry reserves — approved by First Nations councils to protect their people and territory. 

“It’s unthinkable that Ontario doesn’t see enforcing our laws and bylaws, which we use to keep drugs and criminals out, as part of adequate and effective policing,” said Chief Laurie Carr of Hiawatha First Nation on Rice Lake south of Peterborough.

“They have not given a good reason as to why they can’t or won’t,” she added, calling the standoff a blow to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

New Democrat MPP Sol Mamakwa, who represents the remote northwestern riding of Kiiwetinoong that includes the Grassy Narrows reserve, said “it is a funding issue” because police would need more resources with mandatory enforcement. 

Optional enforcement by outside police forces like the OPP, which has contracts in small First Nation communities lacking their own police services, leaves Indigenous communities at a disadvantage, whether it be from drugs, alcohol, illegal dumping of construction waste or landlord-tenant disputes, Carr and other leaders maintain.

Without mandatory enforcement, “it’s two-tier policing, it’s two-tier access to justice, and it’s two-tier access to the rule of law,” said Toronto lawyer Kent Elson, working on behalf of the Chiefs of Ontario.

“It needs to be mandatory, just like it is mandatory to enforce other laws like the Criminal Code,” he added, noting tougher enforcement would be in line with Premier Doug Ford’s recent law-and-order positions on crimes such as car theft.

The Indigenous community’s pressure campaign has accelerated recently in hopes Ford’s government will tighten regulations under the new legislation, which overhauls the outdated Police Services Act with reforms that include allowing officers accused of criminal or questionable actions to be suspended without pay more often. It was passed five years ago but it has taken since then to develop the associated regulations in consultations with stakeholders. 

But the office of Solicitor General Michael Kerzner maintains no changes are needed. 

“The Community Safety and Policing Act consistently applies across Ontario, including in First Nations communities, with respect to enforcement of municipal and First Nations bylaws,” spokesperson Hunter Kell said. 

“Under both the Police Services Act and Community Safety and Policing Act, police can enforce municipal and First Nations bylaws. A police officer’s duty to enforce the Criminal Code is the same within First Nations’ communities and elsewhere in Ontario.”

But the concern remains that enforcement of First Nations bylaws is left to “operational discretion” — meaning the workload on available officers, says police chief Darren Montour of Six Nations near Brantford.

Montour acknowledges many police services, on reserve or off, are short-handed, adding, “I’m not bashing the OPP.”

Policing of First Nations is split. While some larger communities like Six Nations have their own police forces that often co-ordinate with the OPP, 17 smaller First Nations without their own police services rely on policing agreements with the OPP.

Seeing threats from outside, such as drug traffickers, bootleggers and truckloads of illegal and possibly contaminated construction waste, many First Nations pass stronger laws aimed at specific circumstances, says Elson.

“What I have heard, personally, for a very long time is First Nations chiefs and community members saying, ‘I know who the drug dealers are, and we can’t get them out of our community and they’re killing our children.’”

Mamakwa says about two dozen of the 31 First Nations he represents in his riding near Kenora are dry reserves. 

“If you know there’s a case of 40-ouncers coming in, that can have an impact on the health, on the lives of the people,” he said. 

“Not to do anything, I think that’s racism in itself,” added Mamakwa. “That means they’re not as safe as they could be.” 

On another front, Elson notes the Residential Tenancy Act does not apply on First Nations territory, leaving both landlords and tenants vulnerable.

“You won’t have recourse if you’re locked out of your apartment, or if you have a tenant who is violent, or who’s destroying your house,” said Elson.

He references the trend toward “First Nations-driven solutions” to challenges in First Nations communities, which can be strengthened with mandatory enforcement. 

Without it, there will not be increased funding for police and the related problem of a shortage of federal prosecutors to handle crimes on First Nations, says Montour. 

“There have been discussions going on at the provincial and federal level about who is the prosecuting authority for these,” he added, speaking of First Nations bylaws or laws that are passed under the auspices of the federal Indian Act. 

“First Nations people, First Nations communities, deserve the same level of policing provided to non-Indigenous communities.”

Rob Ferguson
 is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1.