Policing in NWT communities may soon follow the example of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Whitehorse as the GNWT looks to propose its own Community Safety Officer pilot program.
A Department of Justice spokesperson, Ngan Trinh, confirmed to Cabin Radio that the department expects the program “to explore alternative approaches to community safety outside of police enforcement.”
“The Community Safety Officer (CSO) program will be designed to provide a proactive, sustainable, trauma-informed, holistic approach to community safety, and bridge the gap between community safety needs and the role of the RCMP,” Trinh said in a written statement.
“There has been a gap between the perceived role of what services police should provide, and what the RCMP is actually, contractually obligated and operationally funded to provide.”
A similar program run by the Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) in Whitehorse, first launched in 2017, has received national and international attention as a solution to the legacies of colonialism within modern policing.
Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek took care to call reporters’ attention to the item during a budget briefing, adding the KDFN’s program “was often pointed to as a direction when we speak about defunding the police.”
Kwanlin Dün’s CSO program is meant to serve as a first point of contact “for citizens in need of safety and security support,” the First Nation said.
Though citizens are still encouraged to contact RCMP for major crimes or emergencies, the safety officers patrol streets to provide support or assistance where needed. They don’t carry weapons, don’t make arrests, and are trained to handle situations involving people living with mental health issues, addictions, or intergenerational trauma.
When not patrolling the streets, they often help Elders or other members of the community with errands or chores.
The program has both reduced the number of calls made to RCMP and garnered trust within the community, Yukon News reported in 2018. In its essence, it addresses some of the broader concerns about policing that have made headlines in the past year, since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.
The pilot program proposed by the NWT Department of Justice will borrow heavily from Kwanlin Dün’s model, Trinh said, but will be “administered and delivered entirely by a community organization, likely an Indigenous government, as the goal is to enhance social trust and build community capacity.”
“The goal of this initiative is for program delivery by Indigenous peoples, for Indigenous peoples, so we need to hear from communities first,” her statement read.
“Many communities in the Northwest Territories benefit from community-led programs as they best understand the particular needs of their residents.”
While the proposed program needs the Legislative Assembly’s approval before it can go ahead, Trinh said the department is in the process of developing an information session to hold with communities interested in learning more.
The department hopes to invite expressions of interest by the end of March.
‘We have good people to do the job’
Across the NWT, Indigenous governments expressed curiosity about the CSO program but said they needed to learn more to better understand what it would mean for their respective communities.
Kristine McLeod, deputy grand chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, said the organization was familiar with Kwanlin Dün’s program and would be interested in learning more about what that could look like in the NWT.
Garry Bailey, president of the NWT Métis Nation, told Cabin Radio a similar initiative had operated in his home community of Fort Resolution growing up, where a local resident served as a “nightwatchman.”
“He drove around the community, he kept track of who’s out late at night, and he didn’t have any authority either,” Bailey said. “He kept track of what was going on and kept the crime down within the community.
“I was one of the kids that were just a young kid at the time, and we had respect for the nightwatchman. We knew who he was, we knew not to mess with him, and we kind-of kept ourselves in line.
“I think it’d be good to hear more about what [the GNWT’s] intentions are.”
Chief Edward Sangris of the Yellowknives Dene community of Dettah echoed Bailey.
Sangris said his community hires local safety officers every year, around the Christmas holidays, to patrol the streets and keep residents safe.
“They don’t have any authority to enter a home or stop anybody, just observe and report the incidents that are happening,” he explained.
“It’s helped the members keep safe in the community and has deterred vandalism, those kinds of things that occur over the holidays.”
He added: “We cannot do that all year round because we didn’t have the funds to do it all year round.
“But if the GNWT is wanting to provide those funds and train some of our people to do this, then we have a lot of good people that could do the job.”