Service reflects on National Indigenous History Month

By Stephanie Sayer, Toronto Police Service Published: 2:17 p.m. July 19, 2021

TPS members, like citizens across this city and country, paused in June to recognize National Indigenous History Month while also expressing support for residential school survivors and honouring the memories of the children who lost their lives.

Four white rectangles on a purple background, two on each side  flanking a symbolized pine tree, all connected with a white line
The Hiawatha flag, which Constable Johns sometimes wears on his TPS uniform.”

It has been an opportunity to honour the history, heritage and diversity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada, and to reflect on the Service’s critical efforts to further build meaningful and trusting relationships with Indigenous communities in Toronto.

Toronto Police was one of the first large urban police services to establish a unit specifically to meet the needs of Indigenous communities in the city. Since its creation in 1992, the Aboriginal Peacekeeping Unit (the APU) has expanded its mandate, outreach efforts and community partnerships in order to directly support Indigenous people in Toronto and improve theiraccess to police services.

With support from Aboriginal Liaison Officers, the APU also acts as a resource for fellow officers to help them become better informed about Indigenous history and customs, and to promote awareness and sensitivity when interacting with members of the Indigenous community.

Constable Eli Johns is an Aboriginal Liaison Officer and a member of the community response unit in downtown Toronto’s 14 division. Constable Johns is Haudenosaunee and grew up on the Six Nations reserve, where his mother still lives. He brings his own lived-experience to his role and understands the struggles and challenges faced by Indigenous peoples.

“I go around to native organizations and communities here in the division and talk to people to see if I can help out. Some were guarded at first because of previous police interactions they felt hadn’t gone so well,” said Constable Johns. “Growing up on the reserve, outside police aren’t welcome. My job is to break down those walls and leave the door open to help people.”

Constable Johns was one of the officers’ on-hand at Trinity Bellwoods Park in June during the re-housing of homeless people living there in encampments. Officers ensured a sacred firelit by those living in the park remained undisturbed and were there to explain what was happening and help diffuse any tension.

“I think the Service did a good job of maintaining the fire – a log was put on it to let the fire burn down naturally,” said Constable Johns. “Two men from Anishnaabe communities were also pivotal in helping to diffuse tensions and to explain what was going on.”

 “I’ve always wanted to help people and to bridge gaps in our communities,” he said. “I try to educate people and change their perceptions, and if someone is willing to have a conversation with me, it can help them understand.”

He added, “I would encourage Indigenous peoples to join police services. If you want something changed, join them and change people’s opinion. I hope my role is a stepping stone for that change.”

As part of its commitment to build trust and strengthen relationships with diverse communities, all TPS officers take part in a mandatory annual in-service training program which includes a component specific to learning about Indigenous peoples, created in partnership with the Aboriginal Consultative Committee.

Fred Martin, the Service’s new Indigenous Engagement Specialist, stresses the importance of education and training to help build greater respect for and a deeper understanding of the Indigenous perspective.

“My aim has always been to affect change from within the Toronto Police and realize the goal of expanding the TPS’s role in community policing and improving the relationships with First Nation, Inuit and Métis people living in Ontario,” said Mr. Martin. “For police services across Canada, it is only through learning about history – and their own oftentimes painful contribution to that history – that the process of healing can begin, and true reconciliation and system reform can happen.”

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