Ian Peach Argues for Reform of How Indigenous Communities Are Policed

Addressing racism in Canada's criminal justice system requires a fundamental remodelling of policing.

MAX Policy is a collection of provocative ideas and policy solutions generated by the minds at the Max Bell School of Public Policy.

Recent events across the country have demonstrated, in unequivocal terms, that policing practices in Canada need reform if the relationship between police forces and Indigenous peoples is ever to be improved. In June of last year, an RCMP officer in Nunavut hit an Inuk man with the door of his truck by driving it into him. Also in June, a video surfaced from March which showed Fort McMurray police beating Allan Adam, Chief of the Athabasca Chipewan First Nation in northern Alberta, while trying to put him under arrest. In the same month in New Brunswick, where I live, Chantal Moore, an Indigenous woman who had recently moved from British Columbia was shot by Edmundston police during a “wellness check,” and eight days later Rodney Levi, a member of the Metepenagiag First Nation in northeastern New Brunswick, was shot by RCMP officers.

In the fall of 2020 in Nova Scotia, RCMP stood by for weeks while the equipment of Indigenous lobster fishers and the fish plants they used were damaged (and their lobsters stolen) in what can only be described as acts of vigilantism by non-Indigenous commercial fishers. (As an aside, I was pleased to see that the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia recently took a 50 percent stake in Clearwater Seafoods, one of the biggest seafood processing corporations in Canada; if the RCMP will not adequately protect the interests of the Mi’kmaq, they can now do so themselves through their economic power in the fishery industry). Also in November, an Indigenous woman in Thompson, Manitoba was knocked unconscious by community safety officers and dragged to a holding cell in the local RCMP detachment.

The incidents in June led the national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, to call for a complete overhaul of policing in Canada. Chief Bellegarde’s recommendations include greater civilian oversight of police services, zero tolerance of excessive use of force by police officers, higher recruitment standards to prevent those with racial biases from joining police forces, more mental health training for officers, and, to my mind most importantly, community-based policing of Indigenous communities. The killings of Chantal Moore and Rodney Levi also led New Brunswick First Nation Chiefs to call on the provincial government to join them in launching an inquiry into systemic racism in the justice system.

Chief Bellegarde is absolutely right to call for fundamental reform to policing in Canada. The model of a police force as the strong arm of the law entering a community from its headquarters outside to stop or investigate a crime fails communities in need. This failure of the model of police as “enforcers” external to the community undermines the legitimate work that police forces do; this model hobbles them by making it more difficult for police forces to establish legitimacy with the community and, therefore, reduce disorder. This is especially true of minority communities or those otherwise effectively dispossessed, including too many Indigenous communities on reserves and in cities.

While there can be no doubt that systemic racism is a problem throughout our criminal justice system, the immediate concern is the one Chief Bellegarde identified: the interaction of police officers and Indigenous people. In the late 1980s, the Nova Scotia Royal Commission on the wrongful prosecution of Donald Marshall, Jr. generated recommendations that led to the creation of the first independent public prosecution service in Canada. In a similar way, an inquiry today into how to reform policing practices—and especially into the benefits of a community-based model of policing in Indigenous communities—could lead to valuable reforms to improve the relationship between police and Indigenous communities. Being a police officer is a tough, responsible job and officers who are “of the community” will have their own challenges in enforcing the law among community members who they know, but a police force whose officers have connections with the communities they police and have earned the trust of those communities are police forces that are less likely to be involved in the kinds of tragic events described above.

Some Theory

In a democratic society, the exercise of authority requires that those exercising authority are legitimate in the eyes of those subject to that authority. By legitimate, I mean that institutions that exercise authority over citizens reflect the moral values of the community they will exercise authority over and are accountable to those citizens. Ultimately, legitimacy is the foundation of the rule of law. As the Supreme Court of Canada said in the Reference re. Secession of Quebec in 1998, “At its most basic level, the rule of law vouchsafes to the citizens and residents of the country a stable, predictable and ordered society in which to conduct their affairs. It provides a shield for individuals from arbitrary state action.” If the law, and the enforcement of the law, is not seen as legitimate in the eyes of those who are governed by it, they will not respect the rule of law.

It makes sense that the exercise of authority, such as law enforcement, works best when it is authorised by the community that is subject to it and therefore meets the requirements of legitimacy. There is also empirical evidence to support the value of community-based policing. Community-based policing seeks to build trust between police and the communities they serve. To do so, it emphasizes the importance of police officers engaging with the communities they police. This includes recruiting officers and cadets that reflect the diversity of the community they will police, having police officers assigned to communities for longer than is currently common, and having a community presence, such as through “storefront” community police stations. Michael J. Palmiotto and Michael E. Donahue identify a number of key criteria for judging the extent to which policing is community based, in the form of questions about how police operations are organized:

  • Are patrol operations decentralized by neighborhood?
  • Are police personnel assignments to neighborhoods long term?
  • Is there geographic and temporal accountability of police services by neighborhood?
  • Are specific, identifiable community and problem policing training modules instituted and periodically updated?
  • To what extent, frequency, and proportion are department personnel trained in these modules?
  • Do revised recruitment and selection procedures reflect a transition to community policing?
  • Do standard operating procedures, rules, and regulations reflect the transition to community policing?
  • Is there documentation establishing and authorizing close linkages between police and other city, county, state, and social service and health agencies?
  • Are record systems instituted and routinely used to identify, track, and assess this interaction?
  • Is there documentation showing officer empowerment through participatory problem identification and problem solving?
  • Has the agency institutionalized problem-oriented policing units, processes, and procedures and, if so, how are they conceptually and practically organized around community policing?
  • Are the work and effectiveness of these units routinely monitored and evaluated by- peers and management?
  • Do tactical and strategic crime analyses support deployment decisions, neighborhood problem identification, and problem resolution?
  • Is there empirical evidence of citizen participation as co-producers of public safety?
  • Is there documentation establishing and maintaining citizen volunteer organizations?
  • Is there evidence of organizational structures (e.g., implementation monitoring panels, neighborhood advisory boards, information clearinghouses, and neighborhood and business associations) actively supporting community policing?

As researchers such as Charlotte Gill et al, Jack R. Greene, and others point out, research indicates that community-based policing increases citizen trust in, and satisfaction with, police, as well as reducing citizen perceptions of social disorder. Tragically, Indigenous people in Canada are too rarely the beneficiaries of this community-connected approach to policing. At times, police officers who interact with Indigenous people and communities have acted in a way that demonstrates outright racism toward Indigenous people.

Some History

Of course, Indigenous peoples were not always subject to the authority of outsiders. Indigenous peoples lived in organized, self-governing societies, with laws and social norms and systems to provide social control of behaviours, for millennia before Europeans began to settle North America. Indeed, they had complex political structures, such as confederacies, that were the inspiration for the governance structures of settler governments in North America. When Europeans first began to arrive in North America, they realized that in order to survive they needed the help of the Indigenous peoples who knew this land, so they made treaties of peace and friendship with the Indigenous peoples they encountered. Together, European settlers and Indigenous societies built structures of mutual assistance and intergovernmental cooperation.

As the power balance changed with increased European settlement, the relationship morphed from one of peace and friendship to one of power and domination, and sometimes brutal force, by European settler states. In this era, which has yet to be relegated to history, Indigenous peoples had their governance and societal structures taken away and replaced with structures created by settler-state governments and imposed on them. Indigenous peoples even had governments attempt to take away their very identity as Indigenous, through the creation of residential schools and policies such as the “60’s Scoop,” in which Indigenous children were put up for adoption by non-Indigenous families.

The turning point in Canada, when Indigenous resistance to settler-state efforts to assimilate them and their societies into the European “mainstream” first achieved political saliency, came with the 1969 release of the federal government’s White Paper, The Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, and the reaction to it from Indigenous peoples. The proposals in the White Paper to unilaterally eliminate “Indian status” and make Indigenous people individuals “equal” to all other Canadians (and thereby reduce costs to the federal government), including by terminating the treaties, converting reserve land to private land-holdings, and ending federal jurisdiction in relation to “Indians,” led to the rise of Indigenous resistance and a “new nationalism” among Indigenous peoples in Canada. One of the first political reactions to the White Paper came from Harold Cardinal and the Indian Association of Alberta, in the form of the paper Citizens Plus, commonly known as the “Red Paper,” in 1970. Citizens Plus summed up the Indigenous reaction to the federal White Paper in the statement “There is nothing more important than our treaties, our lands and the well-being of our future generations.”

The half-century since the release of the White Paper has witnessed a number of positive legal and political developments that have been stepping stones toward the still-unfinished project of the recognition of Indigenous peoples as distinct societies and the realization of Indigenous self-determination within a multinational Canadian state through structures of self-government and Indigenous legal orders. Beginning with the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1973 decision in Calder v. British Columbia that recognized Aboriginal title in Canada, those stepping stones have included:

Despite these positive steps, progress toward the long hoped-for reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian settler state and a return to the original treaty relationship of peace and friendship has remained a struggle. The Oka crisis over an Indigenous land claim, the 1995 conflict in Ipperwash, Ontario between members of the Stony Point First Nation and the Ontario Provincial Police, which led to the killing of Ojibwa protestor Dudley George, and the hypothermia death of Neil Stonechild after he had been taken by Saskatoon Police Service officers on a “starlight tour” and abandoned on the outskirts of Saskatoon on a cold November night in 1995 all reveal that progress toward reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state has been anything but consistent. The struggle of Indigenous peoples against the poverty and over-representation in the criminal justice system that are the individual and social effects of colonialism still plague Canadian society.

The Current Context

The recent treatment of Indigenous people by police forces demonstrates, yet again, the need for Indigenous communities to have the authority to take care of their own people. Settler-state institutions of authority, such as police services, lead to incidents such as those we have seen over the last year. The lack of connection between police officers—most likely non-Indigenous and acting under the authority of a police force that has not given them the opportunity they need to learn about Indigenous people and societies—and the Indigenous communities they are policing leads to tragedies.

Unfortunately, Indigenous communities too rarely have the political and legal space necessary to allow them to take care of their own people. We have fewer than 30 comprehensive Indigenous self-government agreements in Canada, including the Government of Nunavut (which is actually a “public government” in a region of the country with an Indigenous majority) and the federal Inherent Right Policy is very much focussed on Indigenous communities with recognized land-bases; it therefore presents a barrier to self-government for those without a land-base (who represent the majority of Indigenous people in Canada). There are also very few self-administered First Nations police services; only 38 were operational across Canada under the First Nations Policing Program (FNPP) as of January 1, 2017, for the more than 600 First Nations recognized by the federal government.

John Kiedrowski et al have suggested that, despite the promise of the FNPP to allow Indigenous communities to work toward self-determination and to allow their residents to receive culturally appropriate policing, the program was set up to fail. They suggest that there was a disconnect between the vision and the actual operation of these agencies, with over one-third of the self-administered First Nations police services having disbanded by 2017. Many of those that remain struggle due to lack of funding, lack of size, and the demands of high crime and community dysfunction. The result Kiedrowski et al observe is that the FNPP delivers a less culturally appropriate service today than what was promised when it was first established.

Some Canadian police forces in municipalities with large Indigenous populations have implemented Indigenous recruitment and mentorship strategies to ensure that the police force reflects the community it serves. One example of such a strategy was the Prince Albert Police Service’s Aboriginal Mentorship Program under then-Chief Dale McFee. The police service paid the tuition to the Saskatchewan Police College for Indigenous cadets. If they graduated, it guaranteed them a place on the Police Service and attached them to a senior officer, as a mentor, to help them successfully make the transition to employment in the police service. The objective was to make the Prince Albert Police Service 50 percent Indigenous. Too few police forces that police communities with large Indigenous populations, however, are making equivalent efforts to ensure that they reflect the communities they police; this is particularly true of the Ontario and Quebec provincial police forces and the RCMP, who assign officers on the basis of seniority and transfer them too quickly, before they can build relationships with the community, in the name of “career progression.”

Policy Imperatives

As we have the evidence that community policing can be effective, especially for minority, disenfranchised, and disaffected communities, governments that regulate policing should ensure that the police services they regulate put a community policing model in place. For First Nations communities, the federal government should reform the FNPP so that First Nations have a genuine opportunity to make self-administered First Nations police services a success. Governments should provide Indigenous communities with the legal and political space to design, establish, and provide community-based and Indigenous-managed policing and adequately fund the communities so that self-administered police services can recruit, train, support, and retain quality personnel.

For policing those non-Indigenous communities with significant Indigenous populations, governments need to work with Indigenous communities and police forces to build the trust of Indigenous people in the police forces and to help make careers in policing more attractive to Indigenous people, as Dale McFee did in Prince Albert. Police forces such as the Ontario Provincial Police, the Sûreté du Quebec, and, in particular, the RCMP should take community policing seriously—by recruiting cadets from within the communities they serve, posting officers to communities with which they have a relationship, and leaving them in place, so that they can build trust between the communities they serve and the police forces they represent. Frankly, given that the RCMP was originally created to put down an Indigenous resistance on behalf of the state, and also given the poor track record of the RCMP as a provincial police force across the country, there is something to be said about getting the RCMP out of the business of providing provincial policing entirely. For policing, and the criminal justice system more broadly, to be legitimate in the eyes of the Indigenous communities, these communities need to feel a sense of ownership of the criminal justice system and possess a voice within it.

More fundamentally, though, governments should ask Indigenous peoples what to do to allow them to feel safe and secure within their communities and within the broader Canadian society; governments also need to listen to what those communities have to tell them in response. In having these conversations, governments should present Indigenous communities with examples of “best practices” to stimulate discussion, but governments must also be open to the criticism of these practices as not meeting the aspirations of the Indigenous communities they are engaging with or not respecting the distinctive social, political, and legal norms of Indigenous peoples. In approaching discussions on policing reform with Indigenous communities, governments must show that they respect how those communities have structured dialogue and decision-making throughout their histories, such as by listening to the Elders and taking the time necessary to establish relationships of trust that will lead to better understanding of the needs and aspirations of Indigenous communities, rather than rushing in for an hour-long “consultation session.”

Ultimately, governments need to build an intergovernmental relationship on a foundation of mutual respect and recognition of Indigenous sovereignty within an environment that extends the shared sovereignty principle of federalism to Indigenous peoples. Given the terrible, and sometimes truly tragic, treatment of Indigenous individuals at the hands of police officers, reforming policing so that Indigenous people and communities can have confidence that police will, indeed, serve and protect them is an excellent place to begin the difficult, but essential, effort of returning to a relationship of peace and friendship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state.

About the author


Having grown up in the Maritimes, central Canada, and the West, over the course of his career Ian Peach has held a number of senior positions with federal, provincial, and territorial governments in Canada and universities in the West and the Maritimes, has been staff to Parliamentary committees, and has been a consultant to various governments and non-governmental organizations.  His specialties are constitutional law, constitutional negotiations, federalism and intergovernmental relations, Aboriginal law, policy, and self-government negotiations, and the policy process.  Beyond these fields, he has extensive senior experience in addressing a wide range of public policy issues and with institutional design, strategic planning, and policy implementation. 

Early in his career, after serving as staff on two parliamentary committees on constitutional reform, he was a negotiator for the Yukon Government on Canada’s last attempt at undertaking major constitutional reform, which became the Charlottetown Accord.  His 15 years of service with the Government of Saskatchewan included time as Director of Constitutional Relations in the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs and as a Senior Policy Advisor in Saskatchewan Executive Council, where, among other things, he was responsible for the development and testing of Saskatchewan’s approach to key horizontal strategies for government, along with participating in a number of intergovernmental negotiations and negotiations with Aboriginal peoples.

Later, he was Director of the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy, a university-based public policy institute, and he then went on to develop the Aboriginal Policy Research Network at the Office of the Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians.  Having received his B.A. from Dalhousie University and his LL.B. from Queen’s University in the 1980’s, Mr. Peach returned to Queen’s and completed his Master of Laws degree in 2009.  He was appointed Dean of Law at the University of New Brunswick on August 1, 2010. Currently, he is an advisor to the Mi’kmaq-Wolsatoqey Centre at the University of New Brunswick, providing the Centre with research and analysis, advice, and event organization, a tutor for St. Thomas University, and a Senior Policy Advisor with Status of Women Canada. He also continues to produce scholarly works on his topics in his areas of expertise and writes a bi-weekly column for the Fredericton Daily Gleaner newspaper.


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