York police officer would return to northern Ontario in a ‘heartbeat’ to learn about Indigenous culture

By Gene Pereira, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Reflecting on her trek to northern Ontario with five fellow York Regional Police officers earlier this year to take part in Operation Northern Exposure, Cst. Megan Harper called it an “eye opener.”

Asked if she would recommend other officers to sign up for the two-week project in the northern communities of Kashechewan, Fort Albany, and Attawapiskat to work side-by-side with the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service (NAPS) and learn more about Indigenous culture, strengthen police-Indigenous relationships and support truth and reconciliation efforts, Cst. Harper didn’t hesitate to answer.

“A 100 per cent,” she said of the second-year project that allows six groups of six officers from Peel Region, Halton Region and York Region to immerse themselves in the Indigenous culture over two-week periods from January to May.

“I know a lot of people didn’t want to because of how cold it was up there, but it’s definitely an experience at how they would handle a call versus to how we would do it down here. It is very different.”

“I would encourage anybody who has the opportunity to go,” she added. “I would go back in a heartbeat if they let me, but I wouldn’t want to take the opportunity away from somebody else who hasn’t been.”

Done in recognition of National Indigenous History Month, the five-month outreach involved officers from the southern Ontario forces attending calls for service, engaging with community members, and immersing themselves in northern and Indigenous culture and practices.

The operation allowed the officers to build positive relations and strong bonds with their NAPS counterparts.

They were also able to learn the history of each community and its residents and how important that is by listening to survivors, families, and elders.

“The Operation Northern Exposure program has given officers in municipal law enforcement a much better understanding of the challenges and opportunities unique to Indigenous policing,” said NAPS Acting Chief of Police Brad Duce. “The cultural training and getting to know the leaders and band members in our communities, combined with the experience of policing in Ontario’s remote far north, has given these officers new perspective that will help them grow both professionally and personally.”

Cst. Harper, who applied to take part in the project, believed heading north would give her a different perspective. Much like it did when she transferred from the Toronto police force to York.

She admits she had no idea just how much it would. The first thing she noticed was the size of the police force.

“There weren’t many officers up there,” said Cst. Harper. “Each community has their platoon, but if somebody calls in sick or gets hurt, they’re down to one officer. . . they’re essentially working 24 hours a day, and their resources are so limited compared to what we have available to us, so that was one thing that was different.”

What also stood out was just how community-orientated they were.

“When you have a community that’s only 700 people, you get to know almost everybody whether they’re good people or bad people,” said Cst. Harper. “They were skating on the roads when we were there, but if they were standing on the rink we would go and help them tie up their laces because a lot of them didn’t know how or they were just too young.”

In one community, they held community suppers where they made enough food for 300 or 400 people.

“It comes out of their own pockets,” she said of how they paid for it. “It’s very different policing, I would say.”

With many of the officers having grown up in smaller communities – Fort Albany has a population of just over 2,000 – it allows members of the NAPS force to develop closer relationships with the residents.

“Especially some of the officers who work up there and have lived in the community even when they were growing up and have become officers, so they knew the people growing up and now they’re policing the same people, either for good or bad,” said Cst. Harper. “They have knowledge of their own communities before they’re even there.

“That’s not every officer obviously, but I think being able to draw from their own community makes things even easier because growing up we all know who the bad kids are at school, or who the good kids are and where the drugs are coming from, or alcohol is coming from.”

Upon their arrival, officers emerged themselves in some of the cultural happenings. They got smudged in a sharing circle, where negative energy, feelings and emotions are lifted away and used for healing of mind, body, and spirit, as well as balancing energies.

They were also brought to community housing or retirement type settings where some of the elders were.

“We brought some flowers because it was Valentine’s Day,” said Cst. Harper. “They go in there often just to see them and thank them for everything they did for the community prior to them being no longer able to participate in everything in the community.”

The experience also provided the officers with a better understanding of Indigenous people and how to work with them.

“I understand we do have Indigenous people in our community. However it’s not a large population compared to up there,” she said. “I do think it gave me a little more insight into how they’ve been treated by police in the past or other services.

“A sense of community is a really big thing for them. It really should be for all of us.”

You can see it in the relationships they have.

Cst. Harper points to a hunt they have where a Caribou or Moose is caught in season and brought to the community centre where the kids learn how to butcher the meat properly and then get to take some of it home to their families.

“Obviously, there’s going to be a few that don’t like the police because they’re criminals, but it’s just so interesting to have an officer that can almost walk into any house in the community and it’s ‘Hi Dave’ or ‘Hi’ whoever it is,” she said.

Cst. Harper only got to go to two of the communities due to one of the NAPS officers getting injured and her not being able to team up with someone.

The shortage of policing in each community meant they had to bond together and help one another. Cst. Harper recalls a stabbing incident when help had to be called in because there were only the York officers and one NAPS officer.

“That’s not enough people to cover a stabbing,” she said.

A detective had to be flown in from a community close to the Manitoba border to also help in the investigation.

“We (YRP) can just pick up the phone and go, ‘Hey, I need you guys to come to this scene’ or ‘this is what I have,’” added Cst. Harper.

The differences in resources appeared quite evident when Cst. Harper returned to her duties in York.

“Especially when you come back here and hear people complain we don’t have enough officers, or we don’t have enough cars,” she said. “At one point in one of the communities, we were down to one car because the one car had been in an accident the week before and the other just stopped working.

“We parked it in the driveway and went in for lunch and when we came back out it just wouldn’t start. We couldn’t jump it, we tried everything. And there’s no tow trucks up there, so we towed that one with the other cruiser. It’s an eye opener because that wouldn’t happen down here.”

The frigid temperatures are also an eye opener. Harper admits she doesn’t mind the cold, but what she experienced from the project and what other officers would experience from taking part would far outweigh the subarctic climate.

“You’re missing out on an experience when you can just put a jacket on,” she said.

York, like police forces in Peel and Halton, made a short video highlighting their experiences and those insights will help inform them in their work in their own communities.

The three videos were shared via their own social channels in early June and will be made into one video, which will premiere at the 2nd Annual Safety of our Cities Conference being held Sept 16 to 18 in Peel Region.


Photo: YRP officers travelled to northern Ontario earlier this year to take part in Operation Northern Exposure and learn about Indigenous culture and join forces to work with the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service. (YRP photo)



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