Chiefs welcome RCMP efforts to curb bootlegging in northern Manitoba, but say more needs to be done

Leaders in some northern Manitoba First Nations say they welcome the RCMP’s increased efforts to curb bootlegging, but it’s not enough to help tame a flow of alcohol and drugs into communities that they say is linked to deeply rooted trauma.

God’s Lake First Nation Chief Hubert Watt said an RCMP checkstop program that ran last month was a good start, but RCMP aren’t enforcing the community’s own bylaws as strongly as leadership would like.

“We’ve had meetings with the RCMP regarding our bylaws and they’ve said they can’t enforce them.… The Crown doesn’t really recognize bylaws, is what they said,” said Watt, whose First Nation is about 250 kilometres southeast of the northern city of Thompson.

Eleven northern First Nations in Manitoba, including God’s Lake, have recently declared states of emergency recently amid a range of social issues in their communities, including suspected drug-related deaths, suicides, inadequate emergency health and fire supports, and concerns around substance use.

Some chiefs point to the intergenerational impacts of residential schools and the COVID-19 pandemic as contributing factors.

Meanwhile, there has also been rising tension between RCMP and some communities. 

In one example, the chief of St. Theresa Point said in March the community had lost confidence in the RCMP after the death of two teens and concerns over drug enforcement in the community. 

A man in a red sweater is seen on a snowy balcony in downtown Winnipeg.
God’s Lake First Nation Chief Hubert Watt, shown here in a November photo, says his community has had a bylaw prohibiting drugs and alcohol for some time, but it has been difficult to enforce. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Several communities like God’s Lake are attempting to enact local bylaws restricting or prohibiting drug and alcohol use, and have asked for more support from government and RCMP.

Last week, Manitoba RCMP issued two news releases highlighting seizures of bootleg alcohol, contraband and firearms during checkstops and routine traffic stops in the north.

A checkstop took place March 10-12 on key roads heading into northern communities, including Highway 6 and Provincial Road 373, as well as winter roads into Gods Lake Narrows, Island Lake and surrounding communities, police said in a March 28 news release.

RCMP said they seized 26 bottles of liquor from a single vehicle during the checkstop. They issued a total of 75 traffic tickets, executed four arrest warrants, and charged one driver with impaired driving and another with trafficking under the Cannabis Act during the checkstop period.

The release said RCMP enforcement “will continue as per the expressed wishes of community leadership” in communities that have their own drug and alcohol bylaws and “have asked to make enforcement a priority.”

That statement was repeated in a news release a day later reporting on a traffic stop and arrest in God’s Lake, where RCMP say they found several bottles of alcohol and firearms inside a vehicle.

‘Partnership is not there’ on enforcement: councillor

But Watt takes issue with how the RCMP have characterized their response to communities that want help enacting local drugs and alcohol bylaws.

“I think they’re just saying that because more and more First Nations are coming out and saying that the RCMP are not very effective … [in northern] communities,” Watt said. 

RCMP check vehicles at a winter road checkstop in northern Manitoba in March 2023.
RCMP said last week they made several bootleg alcohol seizures during a March 10-12 checkstop program on roads leading into several northern communities in northern Manitoba. (Submitted by RCMP)

God’s Lake’s First Nation leadership was notified in advance of the checkstop in March, Watt said, but the community asked RCMP to set up a checkstop locally for as long as the winter road is open.

God’s Lake has had a bylaw prohibiting drugs and alcohol in the community for some time, Watt said, but it has been difficult to enforce.

The First Nation wanted RCMP involved in mandatory searches of vehicles entering the community, but RCMP won’t proactively search every vehicle due to legal limitations, according to both Watt and Phillip Kanabee, a God’s Lake band councillor.

“I’ve been fighting with the RCMP for the longest time to get them to enforce the bylaws,” said Kanabee. “We try to work with RCMP in the community but … the partnership is not there.”

The checkstops align with the wishes of local leaders, said Grand Chief Scott Harper of Island Lake Anishininew Okimawin, the organization that represents the four Island Lake First Nations in northeastern Manitoba — St. Theresa Point, Garden Hill, Red Sucker Lake and Wasagamack.

But Harper said he would like more consultation from RCMP, and that the illegal flow of alcohol and drugs in the communities places “a tremendous strain on not just our families, but also on local police as well as the RCMP.”

“Our communities struggle to provide 24-hour monitoring of winter road traffic, and we would like to see the RCMP sustain their efforts to deter bootlegging,” he said in a statement.

Checkstops continuing: RCMP

Manitoba RCMP media relations spokesperson Tara Seel said detachment commanders are in “constant contact” with northern leaders and always open to discussing policing priorities.

Police also recognize that some community bylaws around drugs and alcohol have been in place for decades, and “our recent communication regarding enforcement in this area is in no way saying this is a new initiative,” she said in a statement.

Seel said the RCMP, Crown prosecutors and other partners need to operate within the bounds of the provincial and federal laws — including the Charter of Rights and the Privacy Act — when investigating illegal distribution of drugs or alcohol.

Checkstops will continue, along with a “commitment to work with local leadership to best use police resources,” said Seel.

She added that bootlegging enforcement has to be balanced with “a number of other public safety priorities,” including responding to violent crime.

Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation Chief Angela Levasseur suggested that type of violence is a byproduct of deeper issues.

Nisichawayasihk isn’t a fly-in community like God’s Lake or Island Lake, but it does have its own permanent checkstop on Provincial Road 391, staffed by local safety officers who search vehicles for illegal drugs and quantities of alcohol that exceed allowable limits, said Levasseur.

A woman with long dark hair and a dark blazer.
Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation Chief Angela Levasseur would like to see the province invest more of its revenue from the sale of liquor in addressing mental health and addictions issues. (Submitted by Angela Levasseur)

But beyond policing, she said communities are dealing with mental health and addictions issues that worsened during the pandemic, on top of the intergenerational trauma from residential schools and child and family welfare system.

She would like to see the province funnel more of its revenue from the sale of liquor toward addressing those issues.

“If the provincial and federal government made a greater investment in healing initiatives, First Nations people would not feel the need to self-medicate with substances,” she said.

“Provincial and federal governments must be held accountable for the problems that they’ve created.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

As well, a national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.

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