A stabbing spree that left 11 people dead between James Smith Cree Nation and the village of Weldon is being called a "watershed moment."
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) 4th Vice Chair Heather Bear says this is the time to deal head-on with problems faced by First Nations communities, warning that a lack of action will leave room for more tragedies like last weekend's.
The FSIN is calling for the establishment of tribal policing in First Nations communities, along with improved addictions and mental health services.
"Those are the three key areas right now that we can't emphasize more," said Bear on Friday, a day after meeting on James Smith with its residents, friends and families of victims, fellow leaders within First Nations communities, and public officials including Premier Scott Moe and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki.
"Tribal policing is something we need to do ourselves," said Bear. "We know our people. We know where people live. And there's other systemic changes that need to happen, when you look at parole and probation, and those kinds of issues. When people are released from jails, release plans. And court workers. The justice system as it is today needs a complete overhaul."
2018-19 numbers from Statistics Canada reported that 75 per cent of adults in custody in Saskatchewan were Indigenous, while 14 per cent of the province's population was Indigenous.
"You have a disproportionate amount of First Nations sitting in the jails doing time that shouldn't be there," said Bear. "Many are on remand... and yet on the other end, you have... dangerous offenders being released. And many times our leadership don't even know what the circumstances are, and coming into the communities and posing danger."
Bear said the provincial and federal governments have failed Saskatchewan's Indigenous communities and should be ready to provide a chunk of funding for tribal policing.
"When you look at the revenue and resource sharing, that needs to happen in this province... We need to, as First Nations, sovereign nations, we need to be included in the revenue and resource sharing too, to determine our own needs, and make our own plans and execute, on our own terms."
She said the province has made a lot of revenue off land taken from Indigenous Peoples, which isn't being properly shared.
"And of course when you look at mental health and addiction, you need to have substantial programming in our communities to be able to provide the support to offenders or anyone else who needs it," said Bear. "Our communities, our First Nations, are in a critical crisis because of the dangers of drugs like crystal meth. You look at the [overdoses] with fentanyl, and here again, Canada needs to clamp down on that. We need to look at harsher penalties for the drug dealers and come up with solutions there to get those out of our communities. Not only James Smith."
Bear said response times for all emergency services needs to improve for First Nations. (It took 38 minutes from the first report of stabbings until officers first arrived on the scene on Sunday morning.)
She also said time is of the essence when it comes to people being treated for addiction.
"You look at addictions right now, in terms of our inability to access treatment centres, there's a wait list. I think that policy changes need to be done immediately to serve our people when they want treatment."
"There's a small window there when someone who's wounded with addiction wants to get clean. At a moment's notice, you take them right now. You don't put them on a waiting list. That's when you get into the relapses, and of course crime happens. And then what? Then you have the court system, and then you have the paroles, then you have the prisons. And then you have the meter running there financially. It's a financial strain on our whole entire country."
"With First Nations being overrepresented in... provincial and federal corrections centres, it really boils down to these inequities. And of course the lack of full implementation of a treaty right across the board."
The following is our conversation with Bear.
Saskatchewan's Integrated Justice Services provided the following response when asked about the FSIN's calls for changes to policing:
- We offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the victims of the horrific attacks on James Smith Cree Nation and in Weldon.
- We thank the RCMP and other police services for their efforts to protect the public, as well as the first responders and health care professionals who provided critical support and service in James Smith Cree Nation, Weldon, and across the province.
- The Government of Saskatchewan supports the First Nations Policing Program by funding 33 community tripartite agreements, one self-administered police service (File Hills First Nations Police Service), and through grants to community consultative groups.
- Funding for the First Nations Policing Program is cost shared between the Government of Canada (52%) and the provincial government (48%).
- We understand that the federal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness has been mandated by the Prime Minister to co-develop a legislative framework for First Nations policing with the Indigenous Services Minister.
- We are aware of the discussions around a potential tribal police force, and will be discussing this request with our First Nations and federal partners.
DiscoverEstevan also reached out to the provincial government regarding the FSIN's appeal for increased mental health and addictions supports.