By Chris Connors
First Nations communities in Cape Breton will no longer be policed by their own. Membertou Chief Terry Paul, who also serves as commissioner of Unama’ki Tribal Police, said the cash-strapped force is winding down and will fold when a five-year funding agreement expires April 1.
The federal and provincial governments had been covering the cost of the native force under a 51-49 per cent agreement.
Paul said that agreement has been extended by three months, enough time for Membertou, Eskasoni, Waycobah and Chapel Island band officials to consider proposals from other police agencies. Wagmatcook, the island’s other Mi’kmaq band, was originally included in the agreement but pulled out after the second year.
He expects final agreements will be in place by June.
“We’re looking at the demise of the Unama’ki Tribal Police as it’s set up now,” Paul said Monday.
The RCMP have been patrolling Membertou cost-free for the past few months because the band lost its complement of three Unama’ki members to other forces. Each of the native communities will negotiate its own police contracts.
“We’ve had several discussions with both the RCMP and the (Cape Breton) regional police,” said Paul. “We’re just waiting for their proposals right now.” Paul said the current funding arrangement never adequately covered the Unama’ki Tribal Police budget.
The government agreement offered just under $1 million in 1995 before ramping up to about $1.3 million this year.
Paul said $1.9 million would provide a “good, sizable force,” of 25 people, including civilian dispatchers and staff.
“It comes down to money and I guess the geographical area,” he said. “We need the bodies in order for it to be patrolled and serviced correctly.
“It shows in the police officers being very stressed out and the amount of overtime they have to do to make sure our communities have at least the basic protection services.”
But he said Ottawa and Halifax haven’t been willing to increase funding.
“They feel what they’re giving now is enough. I’m not even going there anymore. After many meetings I think one kind of accepts the fact that they’re not going to give any more money. So why keep conking your head against the wall when nothing is going to happen?”
While he said giving up on native self-policing, something outlined by the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr. Prosecution, was “very, very sad,” Paul said emphasis will still fall on natives policing natives.
“I think things are a little better today. I think we have a better chance of getting our people into the police forces and we’re still going to continue to do whatever we can to make sure our people are involved in policing our people.”