From Arch-Enemies to Collaborators – Building a Policing Strategy for Membertou

membertou signWhen Membertou was informed that their facilities were marked for robberies, you would think the solution was simple: step up security and/or policing in the area. However, there existed dramatically different worldviews or ways of seeing and understanding the situation, influenced by history and by current reality.

An adversarial relationship between the local police force and the community existed that went back to before the relocation of Membertou was ordered in 1916, with the actual relocation beginning 1926. The move to relocate Membertou had been sparked by industrial growth in Sydney, NS at the turn of the century, centered on coal mining and the steel industry. People and wealth flooded in. The Membertou community had been located at the entrance to Sydney and some residents had it in their minds that Membertou was somehow a blight on the larger community. These residents put pressure on the Federal Government for more than two decades to change legislation so that a move could be ordered by the Exchequer Court. It was claimed that Membertou was unsightly, disruptive and full of alcoholics, a worldview projected onto the community by the larger population that was not true.

The legal professions contributed to the pressure put on government to make the changes and fuelled the racial undercurrents that existed. The legal profession worked from a dominant worldview perspective without much room to understand or work with the Membertou community in an open minded way. The relationship was adversarial.

The situation was exacerbated during the Donald Marshall, Jr. investigation. At the age of seventeen, Donald Marshall, Jr., the son of the Grand Chief of the Mi’kmaw Nation, was wrongfully accused of killing his friend Sandy Seale. Information was deliberately ignored in favour of assumptions about what would likely have happened between a young First Nations youth and a young African Nova Scotian youth. Despite eye witness reports that a white man was also involved, the investigation defaulted to a story that “made sense” – that the Native youth, who had had run-ins with the legal system, would attack and kill a Black youth. Racial bias was a norm in the police force as in so many other systems and it was a prevailing worldview in the 1970s.

Thirty years later, Membertou had no reason to expect that working with the local police force would be helpful to what was needed in the community. So, they attempted a work around. Twice.

After the Marshall Commission, the five First Nations of Cape Breton (or Unama’ki), including Membertou, put in place a tribal police force that consisted of eleven officers. The demand on the officers was too great, the force was spread too thin and the Unama’ki Tribal Police did not have the resources for 24 hour policing. The tribal police force disbanded in 2002.

The next option Membertou tried was to go to the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police). Membertou was prepared to pay a share of the police service with the federal and provincial governments to increase the number of officers serving the Community. Unfortunately, these resources were still not enough for 24 hour police protection for Membertou. The RCMP went off duty at 2:00 am, just around the same time the party was getting started, and everyone knew it. If this continued, in addition to paying for the RCMP services, they would also have to pay for security to cover the additional hours.

This took them to an unthinkable solution – to ask the local municipal regional police – essentially their archenemies – to provide policing services to Membertou. Not only did they propose approaching the Cape Breton Regional Police Service, the Membertou Chief and Council proposed an even more outrageous suggestion: that they contribute even more to the policing budget than they would have been required to – up to a third of an increased budget. While this initially did not make sense to the community, there was sound strategic thinking behind the proposal. The force would be able to boost its numbers in Membertou, provide 24/7 police protection and hire some of the Mi’kmaw officers from the previous Tribal police force who were well-trained and good officers. It built trust with the regional force and was offered in a collaborative spirit.

Working again with core values, the Band administration was able to present a well-reasoned proposal to the community. This was given a boost when Sergeant Barry Gordon was appointed as the Officer-in-Charge of the Membertou Detachment. He has a gift for building relationship wherever he goes, including in going door-to-door; and he continued the outstanding job for and on behalf of the Membertou Detachment and community while he was in that role. When he was rotated out he was replaced by  Sgt. Scott Reeves, who is also doing an outstanding job

This kind of shift from archenemy to collaborative relationship is only possible when at least one of the contributors is willing to be in a worldview exploration to open up to more expansive possibilities.

It doesn’t mean that Membertou has given up any of its core values. In fact, Membertou continues to operate with its core values front and center. It also doesn’t mean the Cape Breton Regional Police Service has given up its core values. But both parties were able to find points of common interest or concern, points of connectedness to explore and invite differences in such a way that benefit could be found all around, and particularly benefit for all the communities served, creating a current reality and future that is different from the past.

Thanks to Dan Christmas for sharing this story with me.

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