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First Nation Cops Are Facing "Combat-Level" Stress

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On a warm evening last May, officer Pauline Nguyen went into her backyard and shot herself with her police service revolver. The death of this popular 24-year-old police officer stunned people in her hometown of Thunder Bay. In the days following, heartbreaking memorials were posted online about the spirited young woman who was always ready to volunteer and endowed with a "calm, cool, collect personality."

To her fellow officers at the Nishnawbe Aski Police (NAPs), Nguyen's suicide was a "shocker."

"I thought she would have been the last officer to do this because she had such a strong character," said one officer speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some colleagues saw her death as a disturbing sign of the stress affecting the front line officers. The year before, another young officer, Richard Wesley, shot himself. In between these two deaths have been other attempted and threatened suicides from overstressed officers.

"We've dealt with three or four suicide threats last year alone," says another longtime officer. "We're dealing with all manner of self-destructive behavior -- alcoholism, drug abuse. In a force of just 150, we're talking losses that are comparable to combat."

Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of Nishnawbe Aski Nation says the force is simply covering too much ground with too few resources. "We are down 30 officers at any given time from stress, injuries and other issues. It's getting harder and harder to plug the holes."

And the pressures are about to get worse.

On March 31, the Conservative government will terminate the Police Officer Recruitment Fund (PORF). The loss of this funding will mean lay-offs of 11 more police officers. Such a loss will add pressure to an already overstretched force.

Nishnawbe Aski Police services 35 First Nation communities over a vast extent of Northern Ontario in the region covered by Treaty 9. They are the second largest Aboriginal police force in North America. Many of the detachments are in remote fly-in communities north of Sioux Lookout or Moosonee.

NAPs are funded through an agreement with the federal government (52 per cent) and the Province of Ontario (48 per cent). Negotiations on a new funding agreement were supposed to begin last April but neither the Feds, nor the Province has come to the table. Despite its "tough on crime" rhetoric, the Harper government has shown little interest in ensuring police have the resources needed to ensure safe communities in Canada's north.

Chronic under-funding means that that NAPs officers often work in situations more dangerous then their counterparts in municipal, provincial or federal policing. For example, when an OPP officer responds to a call about domestic violence, legislation requires another officer to be present as back up. NAPs officers, however, often work alone. In some fly-in communities, community protection lasts until the lone police officer attempts to find sleep at the end of a 22-hour shift.

Alvin Fiddler explains, "We have officers working under very difficult conditions 20 to 24 hour shifts, and then where do they sleep?"

The lack of housing is another resource problem plaguing NAPS. On isolated reserves, the federal government supplies apartments to ensure that outside teachers and nurses will work in the communities. NAPs don't have anywhere near the same housing certainty. They are supposed to rent homes from the local Band. On overcrowded reserves where housing is scarce, this is often problematic.

One officer speaking on condition of anonymity says the situation has long been intolerable.

"The federal government figured out a long time ago how to retain nurses and teachers. These professionals fly into remote communities where they stay at proper apartments and work clear shifts. You don't see them killing themselves. I've had to sleep in places that you wouldn't let your dog sleep."

Another officer says that, although some conditions have improved there are still major problems. "New detachments are coming on too slow. Housing remains a huge problem and there is unsafe housing for the officers."

Kaschewan Tragedy

On January 8, 2006, two young men, Ricardo Wesley and Jamie Goodwin, died in a fire that spread through a makeshift jail cell in Kashechewan First Nation. The cell doors jammed shut when the fire broke out. One NAPs officer was seriously injured trying to free the men. Without any fire fighting equipment in the community, people had to endure the screams of the men as they burned to death.

A provincial inquest was conducted that shone a light on the appalling conditions in which NAPs officers had to work. The Inquest determined that a simple fire suppression system could have saved the men. But the Feds and Province had never bothered to provide basic standards for fire safety.

The judge also noted that the NAPs officers suffered "serious and psychological harm."

"The Kashechewan fire broke us," says one officer. "We were traumatized by what happened."

The Kashechewan Inquiry came forward with 86 recommendations calling for a fundamental change in how NAPs is funded. Although some efforts have been made to improve the office buildings for NAPs detachments, the standards are still Third World in comparison to remote detachments for OPP or RCMP officers.

One officer servicing an isolated fly-in community told me how he was forced to use his truck as a holding cell because there was no jail. He ended up dealing with the trauma of a young woman prisoner who attempted to kill herself in the police truck.

It is incidents like these that inevitably lead to higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in front line officers.

The officer who dealt with the young woman prisoner had obvious visible signs of PTSD. He explained how he has been haunted by the guilt of "cleaning up the bodies."

"I've stopped counting the deaths I've dealt with -- at least 25 hangings. I have had to deal with them alone. This is when you realize how helpless you are. You go in and clean things up. Nothing changes. Nobody comes in from the outside. You're supposed to just carry on. But after awhile it seems that we start imploding and killing ourselves but nobody seems to hear. We're becoming damaged goods."

In 2009, a suicide epidemic hit along the James Bay coast when over 80 young people attempted to kill themselves, 14 youth succeeded. The trauma of dealing with multiple suicides in small communities traumatized all front line response workers in the region.

Which brings us back to the suicide of young Pauline Nguyen. Was her death linked to PTSD? It is unknown.

"Perhaps there should be an inquest," says the officer with PTSD. "If we don't look at what happened to her and find ways to make changes there will be other suicides. Young officers shouldn't have to feel they have no other alternative."

Deputy Chief Alvin Fiddler says the issue of post-traumatic stress must be addressed.

"Other police services have support of police psychologists. We don't have anything. Our problem is that unlike the OPP, our officers are not operating on a legislative base. We don't have the same health and safety and funding requirements that protect Provincial police officers. Something needs to change. We can't be just out there plugging holes."

The leadership of Nishnawbe Aski Nation is calling for both the Federal and Provincial Ministers of Justice to begin negotiations to address the huge funding disparities faced by Canada's northern police front line.

The officer I met who is suffering PTSD wrote a letter to me expressing his hopes for change:

"We are the front line of defense for the NAN communities and it's frustrating not to be able to offer an adequate level of safety to our communities. We love the communities we work in and we try and handle all manner of issues from medical emergencies, fire protection, water rescues; we are counselors, protectors, agents of change and examples to youth.

"We have witnessed such tragedy and sadness and somehow we still have a healthy outlook and faith that things will get better. We have lost colleagues to grief and despair. We love what we do and we care about our communities and each other. Please care about us. We are the officers of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service."