Calgary

'Native policing is community policing:' A glimpse into Indigenous police services in Alberta

Alberta has three self-administered Indigenous police forces. While the services have grown over the years, they're facing challenges on account of a restrictive funding model.

Limited resources present a challenge

A close-up profile shot of a man wearing a black police uniform.
Tristan Black Water, a constable with the Blood Tribe Police Service, is grateful he gets to serve the community he was raised in. (David Mercer/CBC)

For Tristan Black Water, watching police officers at work was inspiring. So, once he was ready, he decided to join the services and was sworn in as a constable in 2022.

"Growing up in this community, I know that everybody is talented in their own way. Everybody has something to offer to this world. I love where I'm from," he said.

"For my community to have their own police service, it was always an interesting thing. I knew of police officers and kind of interacted with them and it was always nice to see a First Nations individual in the role of this authority, right?"

Black Water, who's from the Blood Tribe Police Service (BTPS) in Stand Off, Alta., says one of his priorities is to deal with a widespread issue that has affected many residents from the Kainai First Nation community.

"On the reserve, we do have a drug problem. They have everlasting effects on, not only the individual but you know, their family. It's tough to see that," Black Water said.

WATCH | Kainai is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada, but staffing and resources are a constant concern:

The Kainai Nation is one of just 3 First Nations in Alberta with its own independent police service.

2 months ago
Duration 5:07
Located 40 kilometres west of Lethbridge, Kainai is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada, but staffing and resources are a constant concern, something the Blood Tribe Police say makes their job extremely challenging.

"My goal was to go out in the community and pretty much find the people that were selling these illicit drugs."

Black Water and his team worked on securing search warrants and hunted down a large number of drugs and weapons in a bid to keep the community safe.

The BTPS is one of 36 self-administered First Nations or Inuit police forces across the country — Alberta has three.

Unique challenges

A close-up shot of a man dressed in a black police uniform.
The Blood Tribe Police Service has to make do with limited resources, according to Chief Grant Buckskin. (David Mercer/CBC)

While the police officers have a good rapport with locals in Stand Off and have earned respect in the close-knit community, they must deal with a unique set of challenges.

For instance, they have to make do with limited resources, according to BTPS chief Grant Buckskin.

"It's a big reserve, it's a large area. It's challenging especially when you're faced with a shortage of resources," he said.

"Our funding comes in the form of a tripartite agreement between the nation itself…along with the federal and provincial government. Our funding is substantially less than what an RCMP detachment would get for policing another reserve."

Lack of adequate benefits

It's especially difficult to retain experienced police officers, according to Buckskin, who said his team has lost seven officers since last September.

"We cannot offer the same benefits package or a pension package that, say, a Calgary or Edmonton can. We are making steps to, you know, address that," the police chief said before adding, "what I'd like to see for my service before I leave…I want my people to say, 'This [is the] Blood Tribe Police. You know this is the best and I'll put it up against anybody.'"

A vast field on the Kainai reserve in Stand Off, Alberta.
Police chief Grant Buckskin said it's tricky for police officers to monitor such a 'large area,' especially when they have limited resources to work with. (David Mercer/CBC)

Meanwhile, Black Water is optimistic and grateful he gets to serve the community he was raised in — a fact that he says makes his job "a little bit easier."

"The Blackfoot people, we're very strong individuals and you know we have that saying, it's a Blackfoot term ika'kimaat and that it means to try hard," he said.

"That's what I would remind the community, ika'kimaat, try hard and keep going."

Establishing strong ties with the community

Members of the Tsuut'ina Nation Police Service (TNPS) have a similar story to share.

"I think native policing is community policing," said Cpl. Tammy Dodginghorse.

"Being with my people, you know, and them having to depend on me and them coming to me and knowing that I can get the job done, that really helps on my job."

Dodginghorse, who has been with the TNPS for 28 years, hopes to continue working for at least three or four more years.

A close-up shot of a woman in a black police uniform. Her hair is tied up and she is surrounded by snow and cars.
Cpl. Tammy Dodginghorse, who has been with the Tsuut'ina Nation Police Service for 28 years, believes connecting with members of the local community is a big part of the job. (David Mercer/CBC)

The police officer has built a solid relationship with members of the local community. For instance, she regularly checks in on seniors in the area to make sure they're safe, especially when it's cold outside.

"I have one elder. He loves his Sun paper, so I'll run and get a Sun paper for him and make sure that he doesn't have an excuse to go outside," she said.

Dodginghorse also ensures she's available to answer calls from members of the local community on her days off.

WATCH | The Tsuut'ina, west of Calgary, is one of just 36 First Nations in Canada with its own police service:

The Tsuut’ina, west of Calgary, is one of just 36 First Nations in Canada with its own police service

2 months ago
Duration 4:51
With a focus on community policing, the service has expanded rapidly over the past decade, but with Calgary pushing up against its borders, the complexity of their work has also increased.

"There are no boundaries with my people," she said.

"If they're in trouble or if they need something, you know, at that very moment, that's important to them. So that has to be important to me as well."

According to TNPS chief, Keith Blake, serving on the force is more complicated than ever before.

"We have a population of 1.3, 1.4 million directly next door [in Calgary], which means that we have the potential for the criminality that exists in the large centre in an urban city that comes on to the nation," he said.

"What we're trying to do is to continue to be the cornerstone of a community center police service, yet having to respond to a higher increase of calls, the severity, the complexities that come and maintain that balance that I think every police service tries to maintain."

A photo of a snowy road on the Tsuut'ina reserve in Alberta. Trees and a few houses are visible in the background.
Monitoring criminal activity on the Tsuut'ina reserve is more complex than ever before, according to police chief Keith Blake. (David Mercer/CBC)

According to Blake, his team has to rely on an outdated funding model that isn't sustainable or equitable, making it difficult to determine what they need in the near future.

"It's very hard to compete in a very competitive a profession like policing and say our salaries are less, our pension is incredibly less, our health benefits, our medical benefits, our dental benefits are inferior, significantly inferior comparatively," he said.

"But what I also can say when it comes to the satisfaction or what the communities are saying is that there is a far greater desire to have a First Nation police service policing the community."

That said, funding and opportunities for Indigenous police forces still have a long way to go.

Hope for the future

Blake said that his team doesn't have access to specialty units like other services. Plus, they don't have legal support if they end up dealing with a disagreement over funding with the government.

"We are working towards an essential service legislation which will hopefully afford us to be predictable, dependable, comparable. Funding which allows us to have the opportunities that other police services take for granted in mainstream policing."

A close-up shot a man smiling at the camera. He has blonde hair and is dressed in a dark police uniform.
According to police chief Keith Blake, his team has to rely on an outdated funding model that isn’t sustainable. He's working towards 'essential service legislation' in a bid to change that. (David Mercer/CBC)

According to Lennard Busch, executive director of the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association, the First Nations and Inuit Policing program needs to be reexamined.

Busch said efforts are underway to make changes and adjust the current model.

"There's no way that you could just yank all the Indigenous police services without law and order collapsing in a large chunk of the country," Busch said.

"So we say we are here to stay and we want that reflected in legislation, we want to be enshrined in legislation, we want to be treated that way."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Boshika Gupta

CBC Calgary digital journalist

Boshika Gupta is a journalist with extensive experience covering several beats such as public policy, food, culture, mental health, wellness and education. Contact her on boshika.gupta@cbc.ca.

With files from David Mercer