The first year of the two-year Sudbury Youth-Police Dialogues (YPD) program, Building Bridges, wrapped up on March 8th with a culminating event at the N’Swakamok Native Friendship Centre. Funded by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS), through a Safer and Vital Communities grant, and supported by funds from the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) and the Law Foundation of Ontario (LFO), the program brought together Indigenous youth and officers from local police services as well as elders, an Indigenous cultural teacher, lawyers and community partners. The goal of the program was to improve relations between Indigenous youth and the police who serve in their communities.
Building Bridges follows up on a successful Sudbury YPD pilot program that took place over two days in 2017. OJEN worked with community partners to revise and expand the program based on feedback from participants and policing partners. They suggested that a longer program would have even greater impact.
The program took place over eight half-day sessions in the fall and winter of 2018 – 19. Youth took part in a series of learning activities focussing on skill-building and knowledge sharing. Through role-play, games and interactive exercises, they explored communication strategies, police perspectives, police procedures, and their rights when engaging with police.
Police officers from the Greater Sudbury Police Service (GSPS) and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) joined with the youth throughout the program to learn from and about each other.
Increasing Awareness of Indigenous Culture
Sharing and learning about Indigenous culture was central to the program. Elders opened the sessions with a smudging ceremony and provided a closing at the end of the day. Cultural teacher, Will Morin, led youth and police participants in several activities based on Indigenous heritage. In one session the youth and police officers cooked fry bread together. Youth shared the techniques their mothers and grandmothers had taught them. In later sessions, the youth and police officers worked together to design and create a blanket, incorporating elements of the knowledge shared in previous weeks.
At the end of the program, all of the officers and many of the youth said these activities had given them a deeper understanding of Indigenous culture.
Listening to the Youth Perspective
For the culminating session, youth invited family members, police officers (including the Chief and Deputy Chief of the Greater Sudbury Police Service), local members of the bench, and other honoured guests to a feast to celebrate their achievements. Before the feast, the youth gave a presentation they prepared on powerpoint, sharing their insights on why youth-police tensions occur and how relations could be improved.
Key to improving relations between Indigenous communities and the justice sector, the youth stressed, was understanding how important culture is in their communities. They expressed the hope that more justice sector professionals would learn about Indigenous teachings such as the Seven Grandfathers, the Medicine Wheel and Clan teachings. “The law is the law, but how you enforce it or interact with people when enforcing it, needs to be sensitive to First Nation culture and the traditional laws that we uphold,” commented one youth participant.
Youth also recommended a greater presence and involvement of the police in their communities. They observed that better communication would help to build trust and prevent false assumptions from being formed.
They also noted that the residential school experience of many First Nations people had a ripple effect that impacted generations. Youth are still dealing with the long term trauma. Access to substance abuse programs for youth and their family members are needed, both on and off reserve.
The youth also assured the audience that the new generation of young First Nations peoples are rebuilding and beginning to break free from the negative legacy of the residential school program. Upon completion of the Building Bridges program, they plan to take the skills and knowledge they gained and apply it in their communities.
Looking ahead to year two of the program, OJEN’s focus is on continuing to refine the program model based on the experience gained through the year one pilot. In addition to delivering Building Bridges a second time, our goal is to make the program more sustainable. Developing a replication template and training materials will help make it possible for other community organizations to adapt and facilitate the program in their community.