The stack of police files sitting on William Moffat’s desk paints a grim picture.
Officers in the Kawawachikamach First Nation, near Schefferville, responded to 64 suicide attempts in the last 12 months. In a community with a population of 850, that represents about one attempt for every 12 residents.
And every time a person on the remote Quebec territory tries to commit suicide, police are first to arrive at the scene, often seeing things that give them nightmares. The job, Moffat says, isn’t for everyone.
“Being a police officer in the north, you’re the ambulance driver, the undertaker, the social worker,” said Moffat, a police chief with 34 years’ experience in Quebec’s Cree, Mi’kmaq and Algonquin territories. “You name it, we’ve done it. I’ve even been a Dr. Phil at times … Now you’re seeing teenagers, children, talking about harming themselves. It’s scary.”
Despite a workload that’s been growing over the last decade, the federal and provincial funding that pays for the Naskapi Police Service isn’t keeping up. Last year, the Kawawachikamach band council had to divert $175,000 from much-needed social programs to ensure the police station could stay open 24 hours a day.
Those problems aren’t limited to just one aboriginal police department in Quebec.
The funding model that pays for policing in 43 of Quebec’s aboriginal communities is dangerously inadequate, unfair and needs revision, according to sources in the provincial, federal and First Nations governments.
In April, a funding dispute between Quebec and the Opictiwan First Nation—a territory about 700 kilometres north of Montreal—caused the reserve’s police department to close for one month. While 22 cops were out of work, the Sûreté du Québec had to police the territory at nearly three times the cost of Opitciwan’s police force (police sources say it cost about $40,000 a week for the local cops to patrol the First Nation while the SQ charged the government $100,000 a week to to the same).
A similar dispute nearly shut down a police department in the Mashteuiatsh First Nation near Roberval last March.
Though on-reserve police budgets come from a joint agreement between Quebec, Ottawa and individual First Nations, at least three aboriginal communities met privately with the federal government last month in an effort to secure a deal that would exclude the province.
“The reality is, we can’t work with the province anymore — there’s no willingness to compromise on their part,” said one aboriginal police chief, who spoke on condition that his name not be published for fear of professional reprisals. “We met with the federal government and there was some hope. They talked about increasing their contributions and signing their own agreement with us.”
Public Safety Canada confirmed that meetings over funding took place with several communities in April but said it will continue to work with Quebec to resolve these issues.
In its negotiations with the Opitciwan First Nation, Quebec initially refused to help pay for the police department’s $600,000 deficit, even though the additional costs were justified by an SQ audit released in 2016. A similar disagreement was at the heart of Quebec’s squabble with Mashteuiatsh.
Sources from six aboriginal police departments and the provincial and federal government say that, behind the scenes, the office of Quebec’s Public Security Minister pushes hard to keep police budgets stagnant. The province spends about $70 million a year on First Nations policing agreements but, on the ground, police services say their budgets aren’t keeping up with the cost of living and other basic expenses.
Contacted several times by the Montreal Gazette throughout the past two weeks, representatives of the Public Security Minister’s office refused to comment.
“As a rule, negotiations always go down to the wire,” said Opitciwan band council chief Christian Awashish, who decided to shut down his police department as a pressure tactic. “The band councils that have the most leverage get the best deals. It doesn’t seem fair. The model needs to change.”
‘Perfect recipe for violence’
By the time Josh Boreland heard the sound of gunfire, he’d already been hit.
Up until that moment, things had unfolded as they usually would on a busy night in Kuujjuuaq. Boreland and his partner, Steve Dery, were on patrol when they responded to a 911 call about a domestic dispute in the Inuit territory.
But as they pulled up to the caller’s driveway, Boreland noticed something strange.
“It didn’t click right away, but I thought it was weird that all the lights were off,” Boreland told the Montreal Gazette. “When you show up because there’s a dispute, usually the lights are on, the TV is on, there’s people yelling. Not this time, though.”
Boreland and Dery were walking into an ambush.
The shooter trained his rifle on Boreland, blasted a round through his front window and into the frigid winter night. The bullet missed Boreland’s head by four inches, lodging itself in the officer’s shoulder.
Though the impact crumpled him, he dove for cover behind the police cruiser. In the ensuing burst of gunfire, a .300 calibre bullet pierced Dery’s cheekbone and exited through his jaw.
His arm was mangled, but Boreland grabbed Dery’s service pistol, emptied its contents into the house and dragged his partner to safety.
Dery bled to death within minutes.
Despite the tragic turn of events, things could have gone even worse on that night in March 2013. Because of financial restrictions, there was no dispatcher at the police station in Kuujjuaq, no one Boreland could call upon for help.
“You just kind of hope and pray there’s other people on the radio listening when stuff goes bad,” Boreland said. “I was lucky that night. And Steve, you know, what happened to Steve will always stay with me.”
After killing Dery, the gunman committed suicide.
Though the events in Kuujjuaq are an extreme and rare example, they serve as a reminder of the kind of danger that police in indigenous communities face.
In the territories they serve, residents live disproportionately in poverty, face overcrowded housing conditions and many struggle with addiction issues related to the legacy of Canada’s residential school system. Several officers interviewed by the Montreal Gazette say that police often bear the brunt of what they call Canada’s broken relationship with its aboriginal people.
“A lot of these people are living in extreme poverty, many of them were abused in residential school or their parents were abused in residential school,” said one aboriginal police officer, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional reprisals. “They need access to mental health-care and they’re not getting it. They need access to clean drinking water and they’re not getting it. They need basic services and they’re not getting them.
“Throw in substance-abuse problems and a housing crisis into the mix — three, sometimes four, generations living under the same roof — and you’ve got the perfect recipe for violence.”
There’s statistical evidence to back this claim. The crime rate in aboriginal communities is three times higher than the national average, according to Public Safety Canada.
Adding an additional element of danger, many of these territories have a tradition of hunting deer, moose and caribou — meaning that most houses have at least one high-powered rifle in them.
Another stark reminder of this caustic mix came last February, when Thierry Leroux, an officer in the Lac Simon Algonquin territory, was shot to death while responding to a distress call.
Budget shortages also threaten to close the Lac Simon police department.
Police are also on the front lines of the suicide crisis that so many indigenous communities face.
During one particularly disturbing intervention, Boreland and his partner kept a 13-year-old boy from killing himself.
“When we arrived at the scene, he was in the bathroom, with a noose around his neck,” Boreland said. “We didn’t have time to think. My partner braced his body up, and I rushed to cut the rope. It was unreal. It makes you wonder what these kids are going through and what you can do to help. It’s unsettling.”
Despite the difficult nature of their work, a Montreal Gazette study of officer salaries on six Quebec First Nations shows that officers earn a fraction of what they would if they worked for the SQ.
After five years on the job, an SQ constable’s base salary reaches its peak at $70, 973 a year. Meanwhile, officers in the six First Nations would earn about $47,000 annually after their fifth year of service. Those same cops only reach the top of their base pay scale after 12 years, at which point their yearly wages jump to $53,000 a year.
The Montreal Gazette chose to look at six police departments in remote Cree, Inuit, Atikamekw and Innu territories that reflect the diversity of Quebec’s indigenous population.
The wage gaps in aboriginal departments mean their rosters are often staffed by young, inexperienced officers who often leave when a job opens up in the SQ or a municipal department.
“We find ourselves constantly training new officers who replace the ones who left,” Moffat said. “It’s not that they don’t work hard; it’s not that they’re bad at their job. They just need to learn, and that takes time and resources.”
Officers on several First Nations told the Montreal Gazette their safety equipment — including bulletproof vests — is worn out and that restricted budgets mean cops sometimes delay firearm certification and other essential training. They said their working conditions would be unacceptable in a non-aboriginal police department.
In Kuujjuaq, Boreland says the department couldn’t afford the equipment to gather fingerprints from a crime scene — hindering the ability to investigate robbery or breaking and entering. In the Innu territory of Uashat, police chief Raynald Malec says that they have no breathalyzer, so they sometimes borrow a spare one from the nearby SQ station.
Some police advocates say the problem lies with the program that funds First Nations policing in Canada.
Since it was launched in 1991, First Nations Policing Program has provided nearly $2 billion to help pay for law enforcement in 396 communities across the country. The program began as a way to provide indigenous communities with culturally appropriate policing, and it helps employ more than 1,200 officers across Canada — 320 of them in Quebec.
There are certainly success stories that have emerged from it: locally administered law enforcement has helped foster a generation of aboriginal officers, sergeants, detectives and police chiefs.
But the union that represents these officers says it’s there’s a clear funding gap separating aboriginal departments from provincial, federal and municipal police.
Last month, at a meeting of the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association in Calgary, cops from across the country voiced concerns over the FNPP and its supposed inability to keep up with rapidly growing aboriginal populations.
“We talked about it, and we said the FNPP isn’t working,” said Dwayne Zacharie, director of the Kahnawake Peacekeepers. “The FNPP is a program funded by grants, whereas policing in non-aboriginal communities is seen as an essential service. We do the same job as (non-aboriginal) police but we’re treated as second-class citizens.”
Zacharie says that in Kahnawake, annual 1.5-per-cent funding increases aren’t keeping up with the cost of living.
“Sure, we get more money but in real terms, in the real world, the funding is decreasing,” said Zacharie, who also sits on the board of the FNCPA.
A 2014 report by Canada’s Auditor General found that the FNPP isn’t working as it was intended to and that on-reserve policing is underfunded when compared with departments in non-aboriginal cities.
Over in the Kawawachikamach territory, Moffat says there isn’t enough money in the department’s budget to keep his police station from falling apart.
“If we followed the building codes from down south, we would fail. Dramatically,” said Moffat. “We don’t have a sprinkler system, there are fire hazards, stuff like that. We’ve made some modifications to abide by safety standards, but are we 100 per cent up to code? Absolutely not.”
Still, Moffat loves his job and he’s dedicated to helping the children who struggle with suicidal ideation. The veteran cop volunteers almost every day of the week — leading a CrossFit class on weeknights and helping organize volleyball games on the weekend.
“The kids will say, ‘Billy, can we play dodgeball?’ and I’ll say, ‘Sure, if I can get the keys to the gym,’” said Moffat. “Once you see the smiles and the laughter, whatever we do extra, it’s worth it.”
‘We have a role to play’
Exactly one year after the shooting death of Steve Dery, Boreland’s wife gave birth to their second daughter.
“I took that as a sign that maybe I should take some more time off,” said Boreland, who now works for a private investigation firm in New Brunswick. “It plays with your mind a bit, that connection between something so tragic and something so beautiful.
“But all and all, I’m lucky. After that night, the (police department) helped get me a psychologist to talk to. I was almost immediately cleared of anything post-traumatic stress-related.”
Now, despite everything he’s been through, Boreland wants to return to policing Quebec’s northern Inuit communities.
He says that while the job came with obstacles, there was also a very real sense that his work could change people’s lives.
“There are wonderful people in the north, people doing positive things, young people with so much potential,” Boreland said. “We have a role to play in making things better, and with some hard work with youth, we might start to see young (Inuit) take the reins in their communities.
“I want to be a part of anything that empowers these kids.”