A provincial investigation is underway after the removal of OPP officers and nursing staff in Pikangikum First Nation.
On March 20, Chief Dean Owen and Pikangikum Band Councilors voted to expel members of the OPP after allegations of ‘incidents involving constables that occurred in the community over many years’, states a prepared release from the community.
“Pikangikum needs to know about potential threats to our community, especially when the threat comes from the people we entrust to protect our members,” said Chief Owen.
The OPP says ten members returned home after the resolution by council, and due to the allegations involving misconduct, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit has invoked their mandate and will be investigating.
“This is not a course of action we take lightly and the consequences are far-reaching. Trust between our organizations has been broken and has caused an unsafe situation within Pikangikum which can easily escalate,” adds Owen.
In a video message to his community prior to the band council resolution and release, Chief Owen alleged there’s been discrimination and racism shown by OPP officers in the community.
“I’m digging in my heels. I’m not going to let this one go by, or get swept under a rug. I want justice. I want justice for my people,”said Owen.
“These are very serious allegations,” said Kiiwetinoong MPP and Indigenous Relations Critic, Sol Mamakwa, who added some First Nations OPP officers were asked to stay in the community to keep the peace.
However, Mamakwa says despite officers staying in Pikangikum, Indigenous Services Canada made the decision to have their nursing staff removed from the community each night before returning in the morning, due to reported safety concerns.
“That is not acceptable to leave the community during that time. The trust with the feds and the province has been broken. What you see happening here, is a prime example of continued oppression and the continued colonialism that First Nations people face in Ontario and across Canada.”
Mamakwa notes this leaves Pikangikum without access to 24/7 health services, an especially-pressing issue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Just imagine pulling essential health services out of Toronto, it would not be acceptable. But it’s acceptable in Pikangikum. Again, that’s colonialism, that’s oppression, and that’s racism.”
Kenora MP Eric Melillo’s office says he has been in contact with Chief Owen and Indigenous Services Canada to work on finding a solution for the community.
Kenora-Rainy River MPP and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford says he’s spoken with Chief Owen and Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler on the issues at-hand, and further discussions with community leaders are expected to continue.
“We’re hopeful that the protection and security of the community is first and foremost. We’re ensuring that healthcare services continue to be provided, at least throughout the day Monday to Friday.”
Rickford notes Chief Owen has requested the formalization of a community-based Pikangikum Police Service, a similar model to the Lac Seul Police Service.
“There’s a process there,” adds Rickford. “Despite the fact that they do have a contingent of trained law enforcement folks there that are not with the OPP but are working in Pikangikum, formalizing that will take some time.”
Pikangikum is currently policed under the provincial First Nations Policing Agreement by First Nation constables, who are employed by the community and supported by the OPP. The OPP administers the agreement on behalf of the federal and provincial governments, as well as the community.
“At this time, there’s not a commitment on the table,” adds Rickford. “We’re trying to understand how the OPP can continue to do the great work that they do, and work with Pikangikum on an ongoing basis to ensure public safety is not in question in Pikangikum.”
The OPP says they cannot comment on the situation due to the SIU’s ongoing investigation, but note that any decision as to whether OPP members return to Pikangikum will rest with the Chief and Band Council.
“The OPP has a history of supportive, respectful and positive presence in Pikangikum, including wholehearted support and advocating for stand-alone Indigenous policing services for Indigenous communities. Allegations against our members are taken seriously, and the safety and security of all Ontarians remains our priority,” says the OPP, in a prepared statement.
Chief Owen says that will happen when they receive an acceptable response from the government.
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