Horace Ratt drives along the gravel roads of Pelican Narrows, Sask., where hand waves and head nods take the place of traffic lights. The doors and windows of some homes are shuttered with plywood, either under construction or graffiti-marked and vandalized.
Ratt retired a 23-year veteran of the Prince Albert Police Service. He lives in Prince Albert, but has taken up the role of chief administrator for the reserve’s proposed community officer program.
He says he wants to be part of the solution to a problem that residents say is pervasive in the community — violence fuelled by drugs, alcohol and gangs.
“I still have family that lives here. They are impacted by the violence as well, so for me it’s like I want to do my part,” he said.
Pelican Narrows is both a northern village, about 415 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, and a reserve in the surrounding area. The most recent census counted about 2,300 people there, most in the reserve, but the community says about 3,800 total live there.
Like others in Saskatchewan’s northern region, people in Pelican Narrows blame gangs, alcohol and drug addiction, particularly crystal meth, for its deepening disorder.
Saskatchewan’s rural north has a police-reported crime rate more than six times higher than the province’s rural south, and more than seven times higher than the urban south.
Many, including the RCMP, also blame the COVID-19 pandemic and the federal money that flowed into people’s hands for a rise in substance abuse, an issue that’s been linked to intergenerational trauma and colonial institutions like residential schools.
Ratt would like to see community officers on the ground to address those issues, a program that’s already been set in place elsewhere in the north. Those officers have more authority than a citizen but less than an RCMP officer. They would concentrate on smaller crime — freeing up police to focus on more serious cases. Ratt also wants them to engage with the community.
Paid officers would be trained in a six-week program that covers aspects like self defence and use of force — including using batons, handcuffs and pepper spray as part of their arsenal.
“The main thing is de-escalating any volatile situations,” Ratt said.
There are 21 safety officers across seven northern communities, according to Saskatchewan.
Pelican Narrows launched a similar program in 2018 and locals say it helped, but band revenue funding the program dried up leading into the pandemic. It’s among the communities looking for provincial and federal financial support to fund their policing program and suspects that without it, internal funding won’t last long before the program needs government money.
Violent crime leads to states of emergency
Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation’s chief and council, which oversees Pelican Narrows and seven other northern communities, held a public meeting in Pelican Narrows in late October to hear from residents after declaring a state of emergency earlier in the month in response to escalating crime and a recent murder.
Local council officials say Pelican Narrows already had its own separate state of emergency in place for about a year.
Residents at the meeting told stories about machete stabbings and people being hit with bear mace, and called for detox and wellness centres to stunt a growing addictions crisis. A nurse told CBC that in the past two months she heard gunshots in the community almost daily.
The Morning Edition – Sask11:01A northern Saskatchewan community is calling for help amid unrelenting violence
A tragic collage adorned the wall at the meeting — more than 20 photos taped to the wall framed by about a dozen names captured in laminated hearts each identified as someone from the community who is dead or missing.
Elizabeth Michel pointed to a picture of a boy wearing a low-hanging sleeveless shirt, a flat-beaked hat and a smile with a gap in his two front teeth. Below the photo of her 16-year-old son are two dates: birth and death.
Michel said her son, Mark Clarence Gabriel Michel Jr., was killed on a street known for its violence. After his death, she left her 30-year career as a librarian to join Pelican Narrows’s band council, intent on making change. She is among the people who have called for the return of the community police force, which is set to begin in Pelican Narrows and branch out to other Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation communities.
“You don’t realize it can happen to anybody. Nobody’s prepared to lose a child,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
At night, Michel and her granddaughter — Mark’s daughter, who was born after his death — still pray for him.
Northern communities combating crime
Communities all around Saskatchewan’s northern half are facing their own versions of Pelican Narrows’s violence crisis. Each has unique aspects, but there are common threads: drugs, gangs, mental health and a severe need for more funding.
Buffalo River Dene Nation, about 385 kilometres northwest of Pelican Narrows, declared its own state of emergency in June 2022, then another several months later in October.
The First Nation’s chief, Norma Catarat, said the “staggering” effects of crystal meth and gangs have ranged from exceptionally high rates of suicide attempts to shootings, stabbings and domestic violence.
Catarat said Buffalo River started a security team, but its enforcement is restricted by its non-police status. There is also no RCMP detachment in Buffalo River. She hopes to replace the security team with the same community safety officer program as Pelican Narrows, but says there isn’t money to fund it.
Catarat said Buffalo River is also working toward a youth centre, a mental health facility, a transition house, a detox centre and a treatment centre. Again, money is the roadblock.
Flying Dust First Nation, just south of what Statistics Canada considers northern Saskatchewan, has had its own community safety officer program, with one officer, since around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program is funded with a mix of provincial funding, revenue from First Nation-owned businesses and a hefty portion of the money from traffic tickets.
It’s among the communities included in a First Nations-specific $1.2-million two-year funding agreement laid out by the province in 2022.
Jon Mirasty, a Flying Dust band councillor in charge of the local justice portfolio, is taking a similar approach to what he did in his past career as a former professional hockey enforcer: establish a presence.
“As an elected leader, I want to go to the houses and show the people that I care and say that I’m here to help you, but if you don’t want the help, you’ve got to go,” he said.
Mirasty said Flying Dust still needs more funds for a full-time second officer.
Having the first present in the community has helped, he said, “But, again, a CSO can only do so much. When it gets to our real crime, they’re just eyes to give a heads-up to RCMP,” he said.
In 2022, a federal government report suggested making First Nations policing an essential service.
Mirasty admitted policing is only one part of what the community needs. He said solutions need to focus on people at the heart of the issue — substance users, people with mental health issues — and pulling youth out of a criminal lifestyle early.
RCMP Saskatchewan north district commander Murray Chamberlin agreed.
While Saskatchewan introduced Crime Reduction teams in 2018 to target high risk offenders, including in communities like Pelican Narrows, Chamberlin said the solution needs to expand.
“As long as there is a demand for drugs and a profit to be made, there will always be new gangs, new drug dealers, new issues,” Chamberlin said.
Addressing deep-seated issues is tough in the north, where detox centres can be hours away.
Mirasty said he’s driven seven hours to bring a person from Flying Dust First Nation to Regina.
Focusing on their youth
First Nations are also trying to reconnect youth with Indigenous culture, something that leadership believes could prevent young people from being recruited by gangs.
Grandmother’s Bay, part of Lac La Ronge Indian Band about 120 kilometres northwest of Pelican Narrows, runs cultural camps six times a year for people aged five to 25. For example, in the spring, youth draw sap from birch trees, boil it down to molasses and make it into a jam. In the fall, they learn to cut, dry and preserve meat, like moose or beaver.
He’s not sure if the camp has led to reduced crime rates, but said it teaches youth respect.
“We try to teach them the way we used to live back in the old days,” Gerald McKenzie, a councillor for Grandmother’s Bay, said. “We have to keep continuing the traditional way of life.”
Grandmother’s Bay also developed a safety committee to discuss crime, including youth crime, in the community.
“We don’t want them to go to jail or youth detention centres, where they come back trained as criminals,” McKenzie said.
In an email, Saskatchewan’s justice ministry said the province doles out about $650,000 to restorative justice programs in the province’s north and also funds a youth reintegration program in La Ronge to reduce the risk of reoffending.
One study done in northern Saskatchewan has shown that focusing on youth with the right programs did reduce gang activity and violence.
Davut Akca, who studies policing, crime and corrections at Lakehead University in Ontario and is a former professor at the University of Saskatchewan, was one of two researchers studying the Northeast Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, a federally-funded pilot project that ran from 2015 to 2020 in Deschambault Lake, Sandy Bay and Pelican Narrows.
The $4.5-million pilot project directed police officers to be less adversarial with youth, and more friendly, focusing on those who were at risk of gang involvement and violent crime.
The dozens of youth involved, aged from 12 to 24, were offered mental health support virtually from University of Saskatchewan counsellors, Akca said.
Community-based social workers worked alongside elders to mentor the youth and check in on how their schooling was going, setting up tutorship where it was needed.
The study found youth crime would spike when there were fewer interactions between youth and the workers, like over the Christmas season, when the program was not running.
“To be able to better fight against this violence and gang problems and substance use problems in the area, we need a more comprehensive approach,” Akca said.
Akca said more funding needs to be set aside to keep programs like the violence reduction partnership going. Each community will need its own tailored approach, he said.
Researchers interviewed parents and other residents, and concluded the program had worked well in the communities, but the province said the federal government stopped funding it at the end of March 2020.
Public Safety Canada, which funded the project, did not respond to CBC’s questions about the program or what other types of funding are provided to aid the north tackle crime before publication.
Back in Pelican Narrows, in an area known locally as “North of 60,” Ratt stops his vehicle to speak in Cree with locals.
“Locals will know what the challenges are,” he said.
To Ratt, the job of a community officer needs to extend beyond policing.
“Be engaged with the children. If you see them play street hockey, why not play street hockey or basketball? You see garbage, why not pick up garbage?” he said.
“Sometimes you set a better example by doing and not just saying.”