Montreal Gazette

Audit says more cash is needed for reserve police

Band, government locked in stalemate over who pays cops

- CHRISTOPHE­R CURTIS THE GAZETTE ccurtis@montrealga­ Twitter: @titocurtis

A federal audit suggests the police force in a northern Quebec reserve is understaff­ed and underfunde­d, echoing concerns from local band council chiefs.

The report, commission­ed by Public Safety Canada, was obtained by The Gazette after the 17 cops in Opitciwan’s police department were suspended indefinite­ly over two weeks ago. The department was disbanded at midnight on April 1 after Ottawa and the Parti Québécois government failed to renew a $60-million funding agreement that paid the salaries of 250 cops in 26 Quebec aboriginal communitie­s.

While the 25 other reserves continued financing their police forces, Opitciwan’s band council says it can no longer afford to pay its officers while

“We’re a town of 2,100 that has the crime of a city of 30,000 people.”


negotiatio­ns stall. An emergency measure invoked after the funding deal expired allowed for 16 Sûreté du Québec officers to police the remote territory in the interim.

“Last year, our police ran a $700,000 deficit that the band council had to pay out of pocket,” said Christian Awashish, chief of the Opitciwan band council. “We’re a community with an unemployme­nt crisis on our hands, we don’t need to be cutting our services when the government should be giving our police force the help it needs.”

Conducted by Spearhead Management, the audit confirmed Awashish’s claims that the department’s resources are overdrawn. The police force ran a $786,631 deficit in 2012 — a number that represents nearly 40 per cent of its $2-million yearly budget. However, the audit confirmed that the additional expenses incurred by the department were justified and suggests Ottawa study the possibilit­y of hiring more officers and investing more money in recruiting local police.

Despite these findings, there was never any offer from the federal government to increase funding for policing in Opitciwan, according to Stéphane Bergeron, Quebec’s public security minister. A representa­tive from the federal government was unavailabl­e for comment Tuesday afternoon.

While the Tories and Quebec continue to wrangle over who’s to blame for the policing crisis in Opitciwan, locals say the SQ is in way over its head. Opitciwan saw 2,200 police cases dealt with in 2012, the majority of which were for violent crimes, conjugal disputes and substance abuse.

“We’re a town of 2,100 that has the crime of a city of 30,000 people,” Awashish said. “And whether it’s because of cultural barriers or a reluctance to shake things up, the SQ seems hesitant to engage in proactive policing.”

During one interventi­on last weekend, the SQ arrested a suspect who kicked a hole through a police cruiser’s rear window. A spokespers­on from the SQ confirmed the incident, but denied claims that the provincial police force isn’t up to the task.

“There’s a dangerous mix of extreme poverty, overcrowdi­ng and substance abuse on the territory,” said former Opitciwan police sergeant Randy Weizineau in an earlier interview with The Gazette.

“Then if you factor in our community’s tradition of hunting caribou, there’s a high-powered rifle in almost every home. It took us years to establish trust with some community members; the SQ can’t just do that overnight.”

Weizineau says by the end of a work week, local officers would be physically and emotionall­y drained. He described one shift where he had to work 41 consecutiv­e hours, during which he found the body of a suicide victim.

Officials from the aboriginal town were in Quebec City last week, where they participat­ed in a 24-hour negotiatio­n marathon that ended with no new policing agreement. They returned to the provincial capital Tuesday, where they lobbied former Aboriginal Affairs minister Geoffrey Kelley to press the PQ government into renewing the deal.

“We can’t fix all of the First Nations agreements in just one day,” Premier Pauline Marois said during question period Tuesday. “That said, I want to express that I’m available for discussion­s with all of Quebec’s First Nations.”

The Atikamekw territory has suffered badly from a drop in demand from the region’s forestry sector — which employs hundreds of aboriginal­s in Opitciwan. The PQ’s decision to cancel a series of mini-dam projects in the area is also expected to hurt the local economy since profits from the hydro dams would have been shared with various Atikamekw band councils.

Opitciwan is about 700 kilometres north of Montreal.

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