Lac Brochet or Abu Ghraib?

Perhaps the saddest thing about the shocking picture of a handcuffed prisoner being detained chained to the concrete floor of a dressing room of the local hockey arena of the Northlands Denesuline First Nation in Lac Brochet, is how little such photographs seem to shock us when it comes to anything that happens on a First Nation in Northern Manitoba.

Lac Brochet, with a population of about 600 people, is 379 kilometres northwest of Thompson by air, and is the most northern community in the province. Just east of Saskatchewan and south of Nunavut, it also one of only two Dene communities in Manitoba, the other being at Tadoule Lake, which lies to the east. All throughout their traditional territory, the Dene have straddled the tree line between the treeless barrenlands or tundra and the boreal forest where the caribou live.

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Dilapidated housing, overcrowding, lack of running water and sanitation tuberculosis, homicides, fire deaths of children, H1N1 influenza virus - is there anything that really shock Manitobans any longer when it comes to conditions on Manitoba's Northern First Nations reserves?

The answer, sadly, is no. And that, frankly, is morally wrong. Think for a moment. Is there anywhere in Canada, aside from a First Nations reserve, where such a photo wouldn't shock the public conscience? Of course not.

Churchill riding NDP MP Niki Ashton regularly refers to conditions on Manitoba's Northern First Nations reserves as being Third World, and she's right. A prisoner laying handcuffed on a concrete floor and secured by a chain: Where are we? Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad in 2004 Iraq? An off-the-books black-ops extraordinary rendition camp in Afghanistan?

Joe Antsanen, chief of the Northlands Denesuline First Nation in Lac Brochet, says his community has no certified band constables or access to RCMP holding cells in the community and are being forced to house those who run afoul of the law in the dressing room of a hockey arena as a result. Under an agreement with the RCMP, band constables who complete a federally-sanctioned training program can access RCMP jail cells, when RCMP are not there. But in June, one of the two constables in Lac Brochet returned to school and the other quit. As a result, there is no longer anyone in the community who has the proper training to access the police holding cells.

Keewatin Tribal Council (KTC) Tribal Chief Irvin Sinclair said that the future of the band constable program is unclear. KTC represents 11 First Nations in Northern Manitoba.

"Manitoba has stopped certifying new band constables and Canada will not give First Nations a straight answer about the future of the band constable program."

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said band constables are not supposed to detain anyone anyway, adding it would be a liability issue if RCMP facilities were used when Mounties aren't around. "We don't train First Nation band constables for detention. That's outside their scope," he said.

Sinclair also said that despite meetings with NDP Premier Greg Selinger, Justice Minister Andrew Swan, the RCMP and Public Safety Canada about how to ensure public safety and maintain laws and order in Northern Manitoba communities, First Nations haven't been consulted on decisions that affect them, like the renewal of the Provincial Police Service Agreement between the province and the RCMP in March.

Swan said that the band constable training program was run by the federal government and had not offered any training for at least two years, but a Public Safety spokesperson said it's up to the provincial government to decide who has the authority to detain people, according to the Canadian Press.

Generally, policing is a provincial responsibility but the federal and provincial governments share responsibility for policing on reserves. The cost of the First Nations Policing Program is split 50-50. Ottawa spends about $120 million a year on the program. In 2012/13, the budget for the program in Manitoba was about $9 million. Of the 30 reserves in Northern Manitoba, the RCMP have a constant police presence either on the reserve or in a nearby community only about half of them.

"The RCMP took away the keys to our detention facilities in March of this year," Antsanen said in a press release issued by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO). "We have been forced to take matters into our own hands and to detain people in the Northlands Arena for safety reasons or for assaults or drug and alcohol infractions." The press release was accompanied by two photos of an unidentified man being detained with his hands cuffed behind his back and secured by a chain.

"The minister [of justice] and the RCMP commanding officer have been aware since June 2012 of the ongoing policing crisis at the Northlands Denesuline First Nation in Lac Brochet and have failed to take action to ensure public safety and to maintain law and order," said MKO Grand Chief David Harper.

Swan, as attorney general and chief law officer of Manitoba, needs to step up to the plate. Now.

© Copyright Thompson Citizen

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