Attorney General Andrew Swan told a gathering of the governing New Democrats that he just learned of the cuts to the band constable program in January. The 45-year-old program that allows First Nations to police their own communities in partnership with the RCMP will be terminated in just over a year, Swan said.
"This is a continuing line of attacks on aboriginal people by the federal government," he told a convention of the provincial NDP in Winnipeg on Sunday. "The Conservative government tells us they're about law and order. They may be about law but they're sure as hell not about order."
Some 31 First Nations communities across Manitoba rely on band constables and get about $1.7 million for the program. Despite the funding, some reserves say they've had to fundraise to pay the constables' salaries. Supporters of the program 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 diffuse many situations before they evolve into crimes, Swan said. The aboriginal constables can enforce band bylaws and are often first on the scene in an emergency while the RCMP are still making their way there, he added.
Both Alberta and New Brunswick have similar First Nation policing programs but it's not clear whether those are also being terminated, Swan said.
The NDP unanimously passed a resolution calling on the federal government to reverse its decision to terminate the band constable program, which it accused of "effectively ending front-line policing on many Manitoba First Nation communities."
Swan said he was "probably the happiest person in the province" when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews resigned last summer.
"But unfortunately, it's gone from bad to worse," Swan said. "This is another example of how our federal government is continuing to cut apart services to First Nations people. Today, it's justice. Tomorrow, it's going to be health care or education or family services."
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney has offered the province some cash to replace the program but Swan said, at best, it would fund about 15 new RCMP officers which couldn't possibly cover the same ground as the constables.
Jean-Christophe de Le Rue, a spokesman for the public safety minister, said the program fell short of goals.
"Our Government has fully reallocated the funding dedicated to Band Constable Program because it never achieved its intended targets," de Le Rue said in an email Sunday.
"We believe the First Nations Policing Program is the best vehicle to ensure the safety and the security of the First Nations."
Clarence Pettersen, MLA for Flin Flon, said many communities in his constituency rely on band constables and they worry about what will happen when the program is terminated.
"It helps them go to sleep at night and close both eyes," he said. "They're wondering what's going to happen out there to the crime rate."
Premier Greg Selinger spoke more diplomatically, saying there is still time for Ottawa to reverse the decision.
"It is a concern for us to lose that program," he said. "We certainly, I think, will be supported by other provinces in wanting to maintain that program."
The issue emerged as Manitoba's governing New Democrats met this weekend amid sliding public support and a nasty war of words between former cabinet minister Christine Melnick and Selinger. Melnick was ultimately expelled from caucus Tuesday after she accused the premier's office of making her a scapegoat for an immigration controversy.
Selinger addressed the controversy immediately in his speech to about 400 delegates Friday night, calling the expulsion "necessary" for the party to stay focused. He closed the convention by telling delegates the party is united and energized.
"It's been a convention where there has been a lot of energy in the room ... and I've drawn strength from your convictions," he said, before taking a parting shot at Conservative Leader Brian Pallister.
"He came in and the first thing he wanted to do was across-the-board cuts to all the services. He came in and said two-tier health care is something we need in this province. I've never heard a Manitoban tell me that."