Two RCMP officers stationed in Eden Valley are trying to change the community’s perception of police.
Constables Donald Vanderrick and Jason Barber have been organizing sport events, such as a recent volleyball tournament, attending social gatherings and acting as mentors in addition to their traditional legal roles.The concept is that the RCMP officers can help prevent crime by connecting with the community. It’s an initiative that began five years ago, called the Community Tripartite Agreement, signed between the band, federal and provincial governments.
“Our focus is on crime prevention, but a lot of the problems go deeper than that,” said Vanderrick. “They’re associated with poverty, with the system.”
The system can trap residents and fuel a sense of hopelessness, he said. For example, there are very few jobs on the reserve, so to apply for a job residents need a driver’s licence.
Most don’t have a licence, and many have fines stacked up for driving without one. Acquiring a valid driver’s licence means coming up with the money to pay off fines and pay for the test, which can be difficult when the residents don’t have a job.
The RCMP officers are trying to help the residents out of this cyclical trap.
Vanderrick is helping youth support worker Seth Leon refine a new driver’s education program. He has also been in communication with local motor vehicle licensing offices to address such obstacles.
Vanderrick is already seeing a difference he and Barber are making in the community.
“At one time we were considered the outsiders and only here to arrest people and take them away and now we’re part of the community,” said Vanderrick.
People will now approach them and report crimes, Vanderrick said, which is a vote of confidence in their ability to do something about the violence.
Vanderrick began operating in Eden Valley last August and Constable Barber started in June, taking over from two previous RCMP officers operating on the reserve.
“Anywhere there is interaction with people, we want to be there and have a positive presence, not just come in when a crime happens and leave after,” Vanderrick.
The officers’ projects are directed by the Community Consulting Group, which is comprised of residents.
Projects include developing a police cadet to address aboriginal gang presence on the reserve, the driver’s education program, teaching drug and alcohol awareness in the school and organizing activities such as the volleyball tournament.
Vanderrick has found that the problems in Eden Valley echo problems First Nations people are experiencing across the country, however, on other reserves people are hitching their future to education.
“The buffalo died out a long time ago and now there is the saying that now education is our buffalo,” said Vanderrick, who is a Cree from Saskatchewan. “But I’m finding people here don’t have the same belief in education. It’s like, ‘What do I need education for? I’m not going anywhere.’ That was shocking to me.”
Vanderrick said he has seen a sense of hopelessness on the reserve, for example, among some of the Chief Jacob Bearspaw Memorial School children.
When visiting with a Grade 5 class he asked the students what they’d like to be when they grew up. He was met with blank stares.
“Nobody knew what I was talking about,” said Vanderrick. “I said, ‘Would you like to be a firefighter? A doctor?’”
He said there is a general lack of confidence among the residents in their own ability to change their lives for the better. That lack of confidence ties into myriad problems from prescription drug and alcohol abuse, to violent behaviour, arson, unemployment – the type of problems that plague the community.
Vanderrick continued to meet with the students and act as a counselor, educator and role model.
“At the end of the school year I asked them again what they wanted to be and this time they said things like hunter, fisherman, lawyer,” said Vanderrick.
However, in the five years since the Community Tripartite Agreement was put in place and RCMP officers started to have a more visible presence in community life, the crime statistics have not changed.
Sergeant Jim Ross with the Turner Valley RCMP detachment maintains the statistics.
“The statistics do not show a significant change in the amount of calls for service,” he said. “Sometimes it takes awhile for change to occur and you may not see it in statistics, but I think positive changes are occurring.”
Eden Valley resident Keith Lefthand was a member of band council when the Community Tripartite Agreement was signed. He said neither his council nor subsequent councils held workshops to educate the community on why the RCMP officers are stationed in Eden Valley full time.
“A big percentage of the people don’t understand what’s in the Community Tripartite Agreement,” said Lefthand. “They just see that RCMP are on the reserve and they’re charging us for no driver’s licence, no insurance. Over the years, under the Indian Act, we’ve been allowed to drive on the reserve without a driver’s licence or insurance, but with the Community Tripartite Agreement, we have to have those with us.
“When I was on council I knew we’d have to deal with the Traffic Act issues, but the main focus was on the safety of the elders and disabled, that they’re safe at home. Protect them from people who are drunk or high.”
Lefthand said more effort from both the council and the RCMP is needed to get the crime rate down.
“If the crime rate is still there, then something is definitely wrong,” said Lefthand. “I don’t blame the RCMP and it’s not fair to blame our tribal leaders. There has to be a focus from both sides.”
Many people believe education is a tool to help youth create a better future, but “school” for many people, still carries the horrific memories of parents and grandparents in residential schools, Lefthand said.
“People are scared to send their kids to school because of what happened to them,” said Lefthand. “Today, a middle-aged person like myself, in their 40s, their moms and dads were in residential school and when you’re sitting around the table it still affects us – even this far down… Some readers will say, ‘They’re using that as an excuse.’ We hear that at times, but who are they? None of them have lived it. It’s like an abducted child.”
Lefthand has also seen parents struggle to instill hope in their children. Because they are struggling to survive, there is a lack of parental support.
“I see a lot of that,” said Lefthand. “Parents don’t have jobs to support their kids, that makes it tough. It’s not a blame, but it’s a reality that the residential school days hurt a lot of our people and the trust is gone.”
Published in the Okotoks Western Wheel on September 20, 2010