The inquest into the death of Lena Anderson three years ago painfully shows some of the dilemmas of native life and government.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation covers two-thirds of Ontario, an area equal to the size of France, with 49 First Nations, Ojibway, Cree and others. There is a police force for 34 of those First Nations, the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, 145 officers in all.
Now the NAPS itself is asking a jury at the inquest to recommend that it be disbanded, unless it's brought under the Police Services Act of Ontario.
The federal government and the provincial government of Ontario pay for the NAPS, but the officers don't have any limits to their working hours, they have low wages compared to other police departments, and they don't have any facilities to speak of. Often, an NAPS officer will patrol by himself. Some detachments are little more than shacks, or simply absent.
Three years ago, a child welfare worker took Lena Anderson's preschool daughter into care. Ms. Anderson, who was 23, was an alcoholic and had tried to commit suicide a number of times. Understandably, the apprehension of losing her child brought on another suicide attempt.
The NAPS officers had been working for more than 24 hours that day. They did what they could to prevent Ms. Anderson from harming herself. But the closest thing to a place where they could try to control her was in the back seat of a truck – hardly a substitute for a holding cell. It was not very hard for her to kill herself with the drawstring of her track pants, attaching it to the light in the back, when the officers left her for just a few minutes.
Such gruesome events help explain why the Nishnawbi Aski Nation themselves are now asking the inquest jury to recommend that their police force either be dissolved or somehow integrated with the Ontario Provincial Police.
Any police force needs to be well trained and sufficiently paid. There may be a solid case for some police officers who are specialized in indigenous affairs, whether by their own heritage or by education. The federal government, with its long jurisdiction in aboriginal affairs, should certainly consider taking a role, too. But free-floating, underfunded indigenous police forces will invite more disasters.