RCMP: section breaks down barriers with Alberni Aboriginal youth

Friendship Centre youth worker Celestine Andrews, second from left, has helped members of the aboriginal policing unit—Port Alberni RCMP members Cpl. Jay Donahue, left; Const. Peter Batt and Const. Scott MacLeod—meld with the kids. - WAWMEESH G. HAMILTON/Alberni Valley News
Friendship Centre youth worker Celestine Andrews, second from left, has helped members of the aboriginal policing unit—Port Alberni RCMP members Cpl. Jay Donahue, left; Const. Peter Batt and Const. Scott MacLeod—meld with the kids.
— image credit: WAWMEESH G. HAMILTON/Alberni Valley News

More than a year ago the relationship between youth at the Port Alberni Friendship Centre and Port Alberni RCMP was guarded at best and mistrustful at worst.

But a year of working together under the Aboriginal Policing Agreement has removed the invisible barrier between the two groups and forced a partnership that is already yielding results.

The initiative is delivered through tripartite policing agreements among the federal government, provincial or territorial governments, and First Nation or Inuit communities.

“The agreement specifies enhanced policing services that communities have called for,” said RCMP Cpl. Jay Donahue, who heads up the aboriginal policing section in Port Alberni.

The section is staffed with one corporal and three police officers.

The section works with the Tseshaht, Hupacasath, Huu-ay-aht and Uchucklesaht First Nations, each of which signed separate agreements with the RCMP, as well as letters of expectation specifying what services they want.

The communities have some needs in common but they differ from one another as well. “One community may want us to work on alcohol abuse issues while another may want to work with the crime reduction strategy,” Donahue said.

But aboriginal people don’t just live on the reserves that have aboriginal policing agreements. According to Statistics Canada, more than 3,340 people in Port Alberni identify as being aboriginal. Of that number, 325 are between ages 15-19.

The Port Alberni Friendship Centre operates programs and a youth council for urban aboriginal youth. Celestine Andrews started working as a youth enhancement worker just over a year ago.

Working with the friendship centre isn’t part of the aboriginal policing section’s mandate per se, “but it is a centrepiece in the lives of many aboriginal people in the Valley, especially youth,” Donahue said.

The historical relationship between youth at the friendship centre and the police is easy to describe — there wasn’t one.

“The youth were guarded and didn’t want to talk to the police,” Andrews said. “A lot had bad pasts behind them and they were scared of being labeled troubled youth.”

At one of the first youth council meetings she attended, Andrews was surprised to learn that youth wanted a better relationship with the officers they were leery of. “They wanted a positive relationship with them instead of being scared of them.”

Andrews called the RCMP office, who put her in touch with Donahue.

Working with PAFC youth was a no-brainer, said Donahue. “Youth are an important focus. If you don’t influence them at an early age then you miss the chance at intervening with negative influences.”

Officers regularly attend youth council meetings, as well as participate on youth and family drop-in nights. They also help out with fundraising activities, one of which produced new floor hockey equipment, Andrews said.

“They play basketball, volleyball and now floor hockey with the youth.”

The consistent interaction over a year has already produced some dividends. “We had some youth who had no respect for staff or for even the building,” Andrews said. “That’s changed now, and they treat it more like a home—a safe and sober home.”

Kids get a more complete view of officers than they normally would. “You deal with kids who maybe only ever saw police officers making arrests,” said Const. Peter Batt, who works with the section. “When you interact with them more, then they communicate with you more and that’s huge.”

Donahue has been a police officer for more than 18 years, and has worked in Port Alberni, Campbell River and Hazelton, B.C. Working with the aboriginal policing section is a change of pace from the trenches of regular policing.

“I oversee three officers, perform different administrative duties and interact with aboriginal communities more than I did,” he said.

This is Donahue’s second stint with Alberni’s aboriginal policing section. He worked here previously in 2008 and came back as its officer in charge in 2012.

Officers who work in the section are drawn from a pool of candidates who have expressed interest. Section members still assist with regular policing duties, Donahue said.

Batt is one of three constables who works with the aboriginal policing section in Alberni. Consts. Mike Bigg and Daniel Engle are part of the unit now, and Const. Scott MacLeod has begun working with the unit in anticipation of replacing a member headed back to general duties.

Constables each bring a different skill set to the table. Batt has worked in Alberni for more than seven years and delivers DARE training, while Const. Dan Engle does baby car seat clinics.

“We rarely work together. I might do something with Const. Engle this week and Const. Mike Bigg next week and sometimes we’re on our own,” he said.

The aboriginal policing agreement is important because it affords smaller communities the opportunity to access services over and above regular police work, Batt said.

One of the benefits of working in the program is that officers participate in problem solving as opposed to investigate-arrest-court-repeat police work.

“Revolving doors don’t always solve problems,” he said.

Instead, Batt is able to get out in the community to see what the issues are and then work with band councils on problem solving.

“You get to think outside the box and throw ideas out there. It’s unconventional but you can be part of the solution.”

The work with communities can be complicated when Batt or his section co-workers are called on to assist with an arrest in one of the communities. “That can devastate the relationships you’re trying to build in the community,” he said.

Constables Bert Calvo and Boyd Pearson previously worked with the aboriginal policing section in Alberni. Calvo is stationed in Cowichan and Pearson now works with the general duty section in Alberni.

Donahue couldn’t say how many such policing agreements there are on the Island. But he confirmed that there are between 19-21 RCMP officers who work with aboriginal policing on the Island.


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