POLITICS

Manitoba to replace front-line band constables after Ottawa cancelled program

11/26/2014 03:04 EST | Updated 01/26/2015 05:59 EST
WINNIPEG - Manitoba says it will fill a void left by the end of a federal band constables program by replacing front-line peace officers on dozens of reserves with better-trained safety officers.

Federal funding for the band constable program runs out in March and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney has rejected any extension.

Manitoba's governing NDP has criticized the decision as a "line of attack" on First Nations communities and on Wednesday introduced a bill to fund safety officers with an expanded mandate.

Attorney General James Allum said Ottawa is pulling out of the program but is leaving $1.4 million on the table. Manitoba has already dismissed the cash as insufficient and has decided to match that money and use it to pay the salaries of safety officers whose skills are tailored to the needs of individual First Nations communities.

"In unilaterally terminating that program, (the federal government) all but abandoned First Nation communities," Allum said. "We're stepping into that breach."

Some 31 Manitoba First Nations communities rely on band constables and currently get about $1.7 million in federal funding for the program. Supporters say the constables are a vital front-line service for many remote reserves where the RCMP detachment is several communities away.

Band constables are trained to federal policing standards but live in the community and can enforce band bylaws. Alberta and New Brunswick have band constable programs similar to the one in Manitoba, where it's more widespread in remote northern communities.

The federal government has said it is terminating the program because it fell short of its goals and Ottawa plans to reallocate the money to a program better suited to "ensure the safety and security of First Nations."

A spokesperson for Blaney did not immediately respond to questions on whether the government will support the proposed reincarnation of the band constable program in Manitoba.

Aboriginal leaders are skeptical of the proposal. Grand Chief David Harper, who represents northern Manitoba First Nations, said the program depends on the support of the federal government, which is not assured.

Chiefs of the affected communities weren't consulted on the new program, he added.

"It's more of a demotion than a promotion for band constables," said Harper, head of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak. "What happens to the peace-officer status that the constables have?"

Allum said safety officers will have an expanded role in the community. They will enforce the same laws as band constables but will also be responsible for crime prevention programs and emergency response.

"We're not only preserving the program, we're actually enhancing it," Allum said. "We still need the federal government to be at the table and be a partner in this important initiative. We're looking forward to their continued participation from a funding point of view."