A northern Saskatchewan community is calling for help amid unrelenting violence

At 10 p.m., a blaring siren signals it’s time for people throughout Pelican Narrows to go home. Residents of the northern Saskatchewan community say it often precedes the sounds of gunshots.

The siren is one action taken as part of a state of emergency that has been in effect for nearly a year in the approximately 2,173-person Pelican Narrows reserve, about 420 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. That state of emergency has recently been expanded to the rest of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, an umbrella nation that includes seven other communities in Saskatchewan’s rural north.

About 100 community members filled folding chairs in the Pelican Narrows elementary school gymnasium for a public meeting Wednesday, seeking answers to a growing plague of violence, alcohol and drugs.

“This is a crisis out here. Something has to be done to help our people, to be safe for our children, my grandchildren,” Antonia Sewap, an elder born and raised in Pelican Narrows, said after she spoke at the meeting.

Her home community was not this violent when she was young, she said. Now, she’s terrified someone will kick her door in.

A woman wipes a tear from her eye
Antonia Sewap, an elder in the Pelican Narrows community, said she’s had people banging on her door after being hit with pepper spray. She’s concerned about her safety and her family’s. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Sewap said there was a shooting a block from her home. In another incident, her 10-year-old granddaughter was hit with bear mace, she said.

“It’s crazy out there. I’m really worried about the young people’s lives.”

Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation declared the expanded state of emergency on Oct. 4 in response to the death of a 17-year-old in Deschambault Lake. Two people have been arrested, but leadership says the teenager’s death underscores the spreading violence.

The goal of the state of emergency declaration is to establish community safety plans and an emergency response strategy, Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation said.

Police and council tried to assure people gathered in the school gymnasium Wednesday that they were working to improve the situation. They spoke of a community safety officer program in development, meant to support the RCMP. A councillor pushed for programming to pull youth from criminal paths.

One by one over the five-hour public meeting, people lined up at a microphone to plead for more to be done. They called on police for stronger responses and better response times — saying it can take hours before Mounties show up — and asked council to improve community safety and introduce detox and wellness programs.

Some told stories of seeing violence on their streets, scared it would spill into their homes. Victims were represented at the meeting by pictures and names captured in laminated red hearts taped to the gymnasium wall, many listing birth and death dates. Some were teenagers.

“With this violence and killing happening right now, it’s not safe,” Sewap said. “I worry. Sometimes I can’t sleep when my daughter is out there, or my son.”

An array of photos and red hearts with names in them with white text
Photos show people who are currently missing, were missing or were killed, according to community members. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

She said her heart was pounding when she saw the pictures on the gymnasium wall. Some of them were her family members.

People at the hall who spoke with CBC agreed that everyone in Pelican Narrows knew or is related to someone whose name was on the wall. One woman pointed out her husband and her son’s best friend. Another pointed out her nephew and her own son.

RCMP say there have been three reported homicides since 2018: one in 2019 and two this year. Violent crimes like homicides, assaults, sexual assaults and gun-related crimes have also steadily risen to 869 incidents in 2022 from 644 in 2018.

Councillors and residents blame drugs, but it’s difficult for people to decide who specifically is at fault. Some point fingers at the lack of funding from the provincial government, others at the RCMP or the local council.

Health centre struggling to keep up amidst violence

Those at the meeting also told stories about assaults, including machete attacks.

A pair of health-care workers spoke about having to temporarily shut down the only health centre in Pelican Narrows at various times in recent months because of the high number of shootings and the inherent risk to workers, doctors and nurses.

“We are seeing — on a pretty much nightly basis it feels like — either stabbings, shootings, gang-related violence, and just general violence toward many people in the community, but particularly the youth,” Sarah Van den Broeck, a nurse, said during the public meeting.

A gymnasium filled with people in seats
A public consultation meeting was held Wednesday in a Pelican Narrows school gymnasium, where community members shared personal stories and expressed their concerns about unrelenting violence. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

Two on-call nurses bear the brunt of the emergencies, about half of which come as after-hours calls, she said. Some nurses have been attacked by violent and unpredictable patients, often under the influence of drugs.

Nearly half of the emergencies at the local health centre are related to drugs, alcohol or violence, according to Dr. John-Michael Stevens. He said the problem has increased over the past six years.

It has discouraged health-care workers from coming to Pelican Narrows, or staying there.

LISTEN | Pelican Narrows health care workers talk about issues facing their community:

The Morning Edition – Sask11:01A northern Saskatchewan community is calling for help amid unrelenting violence

Featured VideoPelican Narrows has been dealing with increasing violence this year – leading that northern community to declare a state of emergency for most of the past year. Now the problem is spreading. We’ll hear from an elder about what she’s seeing – and a registered nurse about the challenges she and other healthcare workers are facing in trying to deliver care in the community.

State of emergency a call for help: chief

Statistics show that Pelican Narrows has the second-worst crime severity index number in Saskatchewan, behind only Sandy Bay (also one of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation’s communities). The crime severity index is a Statistics Canada figure calculated using volume and severity of reported crimes.

Saskatchewan’s rural north is the worst region for crime among Canadian provinces, with about 68 police-reported incidents for every 100 people. Manitoba’s urban north is second at about 52 per 100 people.

“The main thing is the community safety: not feeling safe in the community where they’ve grown up, where they’ve lived, where they have their families,” said Peter Ballantyne Chief Karen Bird.

She said the Cree nation did not outline many policies as part of its state of emergency. Instead, the declaration was a call for help to provincial and federal governments, including money for a dire housing emergency.

In an email to CBC, Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation said it needs $28.6 million to address 16 different needs, including the community safety officer program, mental health supports, homelessness and policing gaps.

RCMP detachment
A community safety officer program is in development to aid this RCMP detachment in Pelican Narrows, to allow Mounties to focus on violent and severe calls while safety officers manage less severe calls. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

The proposed safety officer program is not finalized since its plan must still be approved by the province, according to the program’s chief administrative officer, Horace Ratt. Once underway, it will focus on smaller crimes, allowing RCMP to target the violence in the community.

The issue is there isn’t enough money to fully fund it — a problem Bird said led a previous similar peacekeeping program to falter. In 2019, the federal Senate’s standing committee on public safety and national security called the program a “positive experience” for Pelican Narrows.

CBC has contacted the province and is awaiting response. CBC is also expecting a response from RCMP Monday.

The community also cannot find the recruits. Only one person has committed so far.

Bird said some can’t find housing to join the program and others are fearful.

“I think it was just for the safety of their families and themselves, because they are afraid the people in the community might retaliate.”

Leaders in the community agree the policing program is only the first step of many needed.

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