"When you look at all these little (non-aboriginal) towns coming down the highway, there are police stations in every town, but when you look at First Nations communities ... you won't see nothing at all," said David Harper, grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 30 northern communities.
"You'll see a little gate with a trailer and an (empty) RCMP police truck and that's it. Is that public safety?"
Harper and other chiefs circulated a photo Tuesday of an unidentified man handcuffed and chained and lying on a concrete floor. They said the picture is of a man who was arrested for an alcohol offence last month on the Northlands Denesuline reserve near Lac Brochet. They also said the man was held in the community's arena because Mounties, who are based in another community, have refused to let band members use the RCMP's local detention facility.
"They're more concerned about liability than safety. As a chief representing my community members, safety comes first," said Northlands Chief Joe Antsanen.
Three other people have been detained in the dressing room in recent months, Antsanen said, which raises concerns about safety for other people using the arena.
The leaders say part of the problem is that the Manitoba government appears to be uninterested in ensuring there are more band constables. Walter Spence, chief of the Fox Lake Cree Nation, said his community no longer has any band constables and must rely on RCMP officers 50 kilometres away in Gillam.
"We often have to wait several hours for the RCMP to respond to urgent calls from my community," Spence said.
Only RCMP officers and trained band constables can use the holding cells.
"In the interest of public safety and lawful confinement, RCMP detention facilities are required to be staffed and utilized by trained personnel and authorized peace officers," Mountie media liaison Miles Hiebert wrote in an email.
The chiefs want the RCMP and the Manitoba government to station more Mounties and band constables on remote First Nations reserves. They also want a regional aboriginal police force similar to the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, which serves 35 communities across northern Ontario.
Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan said he has already pressed the issue with the federal government, but has yet to get an answer.
"It's a federal program, It's the federal band constable program. For reasons I can't explain, there hasn't been any training offered for at least two years," Swan said.
"We're very interested in sitting down with the federal government and seeing how we can break this logjam, find more ways to get band constables trained, but also find more ways to have different kinds of policing, especially in remote communities."
The federal government, however, said the issue lies with the province. The federal position has long been that it's up to provincial governments to designate who has the authority to detain people and that the provinces arrange RCMP services with the force itself.
"Any questions with respect to the level of policing service should be directed to the province of Manitoba," Public Safety spokesperson Julie Carmichael wrote in an email.
The northern chiefs say the province cannot be absolved of responsibility. They say Manitoba should have negotiated minimum standards for on-reserve policing when it renewed its RCMP service agreement earlier this year.
The province pays 70 per cent of RCMP costs.
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