TORONTO – A dire shortage of cash has police on some Ontario aboriginal reserves storing evidence in rented lockers, ferrying prisoners to other detachments because they lack secure holding cells and taking an hour or more to respond to emergency calls. John Syrette, chief of the Anishinabek police service, said one of his 12 police detachments is squeezed into an old fire hall that doesn’t have adequate storage or evidence lockers.
“We shoehorn in our detachment into two little tiny offices,” said Syrette, whose 65 uniformed officers are responsible for policing 10,000 people across the territory, which stretches from south of London all the way up to Thunder Bay, Ont.
“We’re lacking in adequate space for storage, evidence lockers … It is a concern. We end up having to rent storage space at one of these storage places away from the community.”
Aboriginal leaders, police chiefs and opposition critics say the lack of funding from both levels of government is fuelling a policing crisis on Ontario reserves and putting everyone in danger.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation – comprised of 49 reserves that cover two-thirds of the province – was recently forced to close a detachment that lacked running water, used ancient locks and was heated by bonfires in 45-gallon drums.
Only one of the remote northern territory’s 35 police detachments meets minimum building standards.
Aboriginal leaders say they’ve been raising this issue with the provincial Liberals for years, but Premier Dalton McGuinty refused to comment on the matter Tuesday because he said he hadn’t discussed it with his cabinet ministers.
Aides said Ontario Community Safety Minister Rick Bartolucci is away this week, while Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Bryant refused to comment.
“We are declining to comment because it is a policing matter,” said Greg Crone, Bryant’s spokesman. “We are referring this and all policing matters to Bartolucci.”
The Anishinabek police service isn’t getting money for renovations or new facilities, so the local band office borrows money from a bank on their behalf, Syrette said. The police service then leases the building back from the band to offset the bank payments.
In communities where many people go without adequate housing, Syrette said a new police detachment is not always a top priority.
“A lot of our communities have their own priorities and oftentimes housing for their members is higher up on the list than putting up a police detachment,” he said. “I understand that completely.”
Grand Council Chief John Beaucage of the Union of Ontario Indians, whose territory includes 42 reserves of the Anishinabek Nation, said the shortage of police officers is an equally big problem.
Because some reserves have to share a police officer, Beaucage said it can take police more than an hour to cover the distance necessary to respond to an emergency call.
“We don’t have enough resources to have 24-hour policing in most of our communities,” said Beaucage, adding his police service needs a $3-million boost to its $10.3-million annual budget.
“I would dearly love to have the people there most of the time.”
Angus Toulouse, Ontario’s regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said policing is inadequate in most of the province’s aboriginal communities.
At the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation near Sudbury, Ont., the police station doesn’t even have a holding cell, Toulouse said – a deficiency that chafes all the more considering the provincial resources that go towards urban police departments elsewhere in Ontario.
Funding aboriginal policing is a shared provincial and federal responsibility, but Toulouse said the two levels of government are “playing ping-pong” with the issue.
“There is inequity,” Toulouse said. “There has to be an increase in resources that are available for police services in Ontario.”
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, who was asked Tuesday during Question Period about the state of aboriginal policing in Canada, said the situation in Nishnawbe Aski First Nation is being closely monitored.
“This particular situation is one that is of concern to us and one that is being looked at via a variety of people at a number of levels,” Day said.
The governing Conservatives have boosted funding for policing across the country, he added.
“This is something that has been neglected in the past that we have looked at and we are funding in a more aggressive way. This particular situation is no exception to that. We’re going to continue to work on that.”
Ontario Conservative Leader John Tory said the situation cries out for urgent attention and co-operation between both levels of government.
“Let’s get over which government is responsible or which isn’t,” he said.
“Let’s find the money to solve this problem so that police officers are safe, evidence is secured and citizens are safe. At the end of the day, what needs to be done is really quite obvious, it’s just a matter of having the will to do it.”
The Liberals vowed to make aboriginal issues a top priority during this mandate but haven’t yet demonstrated much of a commitment, said New Democrat Gilles Bisson.
“The Liberals say they want a new relationship with First Nations,” Bisson said. “If you want a new relationship, lead.”