Indigenous policing autonomy following JSCN

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A community that will hopefully have a police force of their own. Bryan Eneas via CBC

Justice Studies professor on benefits and challenges while developing an Indigenous based police force 

It’s been over a month since tragedy occurred on James Smith Cree Nation (JSCN). In early September, the mass-stabbing left 11 dead and 18 injured. Suspect Myles Sanderson went into medical distress after being captured, and was declared dead at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon.  

Some members of the JSCN have called to form an Indigenous-led police force to better serve their community. In order to better understand the RCMP response to this situation and to learn more about self-administered police services, I spoke with Rick Ruddell, a professor of Justice Studies at the University of Regina. 

How would you characterize the RCMP response to the mass-stabbings at JSCN? 

The police response, given the limitations of rural policing, was fairly rapid. It took somewhere between 35 to 40 minutes for the police to actually get on site after the first call for service. In rural areas, that’s pretty typical. What we know is that response times in cities are way faster, so very few cities publicize their response times, but Ottawa does. In the case of an emergency in Ottawa [where] firearms are involved or if there’s a risk of serious injury, response time is about seven minutes. In rural Canada, to get a response time somewhere between 35 to 40 minutes – I won’t say that’s good – but it’s typical. I think a lot of people living in rural communities, including Indigenous communities, feel isolated and vulnerable and sometimes fearful, just because of long police response times.  

How would you characterize the way that the RCMP conducted the manhunt for Myles and Damien Sanderson? 

The RCMP, after they realized the severity of the incident, called in resources from around the province and surrounding provinces. I believe that over 160 officers were involved in the investigation, and the attempt to find the suspects. The suspects were allegedly spotted in Regina, so other police services were involved in looking to apprehend these people as well.

The police response was fairly rapid. The first emergency notification came out within about 35 minutes of them responding to the scene. The police learned from the serious incident that happened in Nova Scotia two years ago. In Nova Scotia, the first emergency notification wasn’t released until eight hours into the incident. [The RCMP] learned from other places and other incidents, and their intent was to keep the public informed about what was going on. 

On October 6, the RCMP reported that Myles Sanderson was responsible for all 11 deaths during the mass-stabbing. His brother, Damien, acted as an accomplice in some way, but the extent of his role is still very ambiguous. In fact, the RCMP stated that the evidence suggests Damien was also murdered by his brother, Myles. Does something like this happen often? Someone is coerced into being an accomplice and later becomes a victim themselves? 

I’d say that would be a very rare situation. It speaks to how troubled that individual [Myles] was. The community was quite concerned about Myles, his mental health, and his history of violence. These sorts of events are very rare, very hard to predict, and very hard to understand once they happen. We’re looking back and wondering how something so horrible could happen, and we’ll probably never have an answer.  

Myles Sanderson had about 59 prior convictions, most involving assault and specifically domestic abuse. In 2015, he was sentenced for two years for stabbing his father-in-law. Myles was on statutory release, which allows inmates to serve the final third of their sentence in the community. But Myles was also a fugitive [unlawfully at large], as he had failed to report to his parole officer that he was living with his ex-spouse. If he had been pursued by the RCMP, this probably wouldn’t have happened. Is it common that someone remains unlawfully at large for several months? 

When we look at the statistics, […] under one per cent of people out on statutory release or on parole actually go on to commit a violent offense. So, the risks are very low. […] The RCMP had warrants out for his arrest because he was unlawfully at large for violating the conditions of his release. But there’s about 300 people a year convicted for being unlawfully at large in Saskatchewan. There’s hundreds on that list of people unlawfully at large, for one reason or the other, and there’s just a limited number of officers to be looking for those individuals.  

Considering that all of the murders occurred on JSCN, how is it distinct from something that may have happened in Regina or Saskatoon? 

We know that rates of rural crime, throughout all of Canada, are higher than rates of urban crime. So, people living in the countryside are generally living in places of higher risk. That risk goes up in northern Saskatchewan. The police throughout all the prairie provinces are stretched pretty thin, in terms of their demands on them. […] They’re not always able to provide the level of policing that people in the city would enjoy. We’ve done a lot of survey work with rural Saskatchewan residents. They generally have trust and confidence in the police, but they’re not happy about police response times. There’s no solution that wouldn’t be very costly.  

What about terms of developing an Indigenous self-administered law enforcement? 

In Saskatchewan, we have one self-administered Indigenous police service at File Hills just by Fort Qu’Appelle. That provides services to a number of First Nations, but a lot of First Nations want to establish their own self-administered police services. These services are funded provincially and federally, and there’s been a real reluctance in Canada to add more. The last one we added in Canada was in 2003. So, it’s been about two decades that we haven’t added any.

I think that a lot of people would like to see more self-administered police services, but it’s sort of difficult to do because not all First Nations are close to each other. So, you might have a First Nation with, say, five hundred people on it. To establish your own police service to serve five hundred people, […] it might not be very efficient, let’s put it that way.

What some places are doing, like in northern Ontario and Quebec, is that they use regional police services. One police service to cover thousands and thousands of square kilometres, including a number of First Nations within that territory. I think they’ve been reasonably successful, and I think they might serve as a model for Saskatchewan,… that might be the answer. I think a lot of Indigenous communities would like to see that. Maybe they could attract more Indigenous officers, to find a little bit different style of policing, and become more in touch with communities. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

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