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Repairing Indigenous Youth-Police Relationships in Sudbury

 Adapting Youth-Police Dialogue Program for Indigenous Youth 

On October 5th and 6th, 2017 Indigenous youth and police officers from the Sudbury area took part in a 2 day relationship building activity. Based on similar Youth-Police Dialogue programs that OJEN has run successfully in both Toronto and Ottawa, it was adapted for an Indigenous youth audience for the first time. In addition to the usual program components – facilitated discussions, rights and responsibilities with police and communications skills – the Sudbury session included teachings by Indigenous elders, a drum making workshop and a traditional feast.

“When we have that mutual respect for one another- the police can respect us and we can respect them – then they don’t have to use these stereotypes against us”. Youth participant

The workshop was hosted by the Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre and supported by N’Swakamok Native Friendship Centre.

Twelve youth, ranging in age from 14 to 25, came together from the greater Sudbury area. In breakout sessions, they discussed their perspectives and experiences with police and explored ways each group could contribute to more respectful relationships with each other.

The police officers represented the Greater Sudbury Police Service, Ontario Provincial Police, Wikwemikong Police Services from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, and U.C.C.M. Anishnaabe Police Service, the tribal police force on Manitoulin Island. During small group sessions they focused on how the Seven Grandfathers teaching could be applied to a series of scenarios involving interactions they might have with Indigenous youth.

Many of the police officers reported that they were surprised to hear how they were perceived by the youth and the extent to which mistrust is a barrier in their relations. They said they also gained more insight into the issues youth faced in their personal lives. They were glad to have the opportunity to explain their approached to their job and to share their perspectives on community safety.  

“The most important thing was building relationships between the youth and police and having them feel comfortable enough just to have a normal conversation with us.” Police officer

Making Friends & Making Drums

A unique feature of the Sudbury program was the drum making workshop. Over the two days of the program, youth and officers spent time together building traditional hand drums – cutting circles from deer hide for the drum head, soaking them so they were flexible enough to stretch over the hoops and then lacing them to the hoops with rawhide strips. It was the spontaneous exchanges that occurred in the casual atmosphere of this activity that the program went from being successful to transformational.

The shared activity gave everyone a chance to relate to one another on personal terms. As a result, bonds of friendship began to emerge. A couple of young people started singing a traditional song and taught it to a police officer as they worked together on their drums. The room buzzed with laughter and conversation.

There was a lot of emotion. It was almost a spiritual experience.” Sudbury Project Officer, Serenity Sandford

Many of the officers indicated that they would like to see this activity repeated at least on an annual basis, so that new officers could benefit from the relationship building experience and that more young people could be reached.

Youth left with greater confidence about their rights and responsibilities with police and a sense that their voices had been listened to respectfully.

Moving Forward – Next Steps

Although the OJEN program was just one step along a long road to reconciliation, in September the Sudbury Police Service announced another. It has received funding from the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services’ Proceeds of Crime Front-Line Policing Grant Program to initiate Project Homestead, for relationship building activities with youth living in group homes.

Next month the youth and police participants will come together for one more session – a drum awakening ceremony to honour the drums that they created together.

The Sudbury project is one of two Youth-Police Dialogues focusing on high risk Indigenous youth in Northern Ontario. The pilot program received special funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Additional funding comes from the Law Foundation of Ontario with local law firms, Bradley Law, Michel Vincent Law Firm and Toffoli Gauthier LLP also making donations toward the drum making workshop.

Community support was instrumental in the success of the workshop. From the initial consultation process to picking up and driving youth to the centre, community involvement was present at each step of the project. Special thanks go to Justice Patricia Hennessy of the Superior Court of Justice as well as the Children’s Aid Society and Kina Gbezhgomi Child & Family Services.

In November, a second of two Youth-Police Dialogues projects for Indigenous youth is planned in Thunder Bay.

Take a look at the news story by CTV Northern Ontario News – Starting a Dialogue between Youth and Police

Learn more about this program by watching this video.

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