Policing the reserves
It’s just after 9 p.m. and Const. Jeff Palmer is bouncing the heavy axles of his police cruiser down a gravel road beneath the roar and light of the Lions Gate Bridge looking for a woman who tonight doesn’t want to be found.
A rifle and three radios at his side, Palmer has spent the last 16 months with the Integrated First Nations Unit (IFNU), a six-member beat squad staffed by the West Vancouver Police and Mounties from both North Vancouver and Squamish — and the only integrated unit of its kind in the country.
This road isn’t on any map. It’s more like a service ditch that splits a garbage-strewn stand of trees from some railway tracks, making it a magnet for crime and for camping, far from the prying eyes of society.
Palmer flicks on a searchlight through his rolled down window and flashes it into the damp woods. Nothing.
Patrolling down here under the bridge, unseen by overhead traffic, sniffing along a trail between heavy industry and an outpost of diminishing wilderness, it must be easy for Palmer on these all-night shifts to sometimes imagine himself embodying the wolf spirit embossed on the side of his IFNU cruiser.
But the unit’s no wolf pack. Perhaps more sheepdog-in-wolf’s-clothing, Palmer is a long way from the warmth of the Chief Joe Mathias Centre dinner he left moments ago because someone has strayed from the flock and the community is worried.
The other animal spirit on the IFNU cars is the thunderbird, who, just as the wolf symbolizes both the family and the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, represents the Squamish Nation and the protective watch of a higher power.
IFNU members are the primary responders when police are called to any of the several First Nations reserves on the North Shore and in the Squamish Valley.
Tonight when we set out, the first call is a friendly one: Palmer’s attendance has been requested at the Chief Joe centre dinner, hosted by the West Vancouver School District.
The 10-hour night shift starts at 5 p.m., so this dinner will be more like breakfast. But when we climb into the cruiser there’s already a large half-eaten sack of Marrobone dog treats riding shotgun beside Palmer’s rifle rack.
“Dave Sherry came up with that,” Palmer says referring to his fellow IFNU constable. “It’s our ‘rez dog’ friendship program. On the reserve, occasionally you’ll come across dogs that don’t like our presence. That’s how we handle them.”
It’s the kind of catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-vinegar approach that informs everything the integrated unit tries to do.
“A lot of our responsibility is as community liaisons and meeting with the chiefs, the councils and the schools,” he continues. “But we still conduct investigations, we still make arrests — not as many as general duty officers, but it still says ‘Police’ on our shoulders.”
We arrive at the Chief Joe centre on the Capilano Reserve and after a light meal of salmon, new potatoes, Caesar salad and blackberries, the work begins. Palmer makes the rounds of Squamish band and West Vancouver school officials, discussing mainly issues pertaining to local youth. Most of the private discussions concern a few at-risk youngsters and how the community, with Palmer and the IFNU’s help, might intervene before the kids become more explicitly ‘known to police.’
One of the most effective interventions that Palmer and his unit have found involves enlisting the help of local carvers.
Call it an informal mentoring program, the INFU has been pairing youths with carvers as a kind of art- and ancestry-therapy initiative.
“When it started we had this one kid in trouble and when they arrested him they noticed he had some carving tools on him that he’d just inherited,” Palmer says. “And in talking with the community about what to do with him, [we] decided to set him up with a carver mentor and helped connect him with his ancestry. And it got him out of trouble. It’s worked for many since.”
One of those carver-mentors is Xwalacktun (WUH-LAK-TUN), a well-known Squamish Nation artist whose work has been commissioned around the globe. He also designed the INFU’s wolf and thunderbird logo and drew it on the unit’s cruisers free of charge after an RCMP member noticed similar designs on Xwalacktun’s own car.
“They kept offering me money for it but I avoided it and avoided it,” Xwalacktun says of creating the most recognizable feature of the integrated unit. “It’s good just to see them out and coming around the community. They’re really a part of our community now.”
It’s a feeling echoed by Squamish Chief Bill Williams.
“It’s really assuring to the community that [Palmer] has the comfort level to come and know he can participate and become a witness to what it is we do as a nation,” Chief Williams says. “They call us to work with us and sometimes we have to call them.”
Before the dinner is done, one man recognizes Const. Jeff Palmer in the audience and stands up to the microphone to say a few words.
“I want to thank Brother Jeff for coming,” he tells the diners, gesturing to Palmer. “I used to run from this guy until one day his partner pulled me over.
“Saved me from running any more,” he says.
Leaving the dinner, we rendezvous at the Squamish Nation Youth Centre with Bob Michels, one of the local Squamish Nation reserve peacekeepers, or “PK’s” as they’re known to the IFNU.
In the centre, about a dozen young people play video games and shoot pool, taking little notice of either Michels or Palmer.
The PK’s and police work hand-in-hand in the Squamish community, Palmer says, praising the work of the seven-member PK force.
“We give full marks to these guys for coming out. We will often show up at the same calls, yet they’re volunteers. We’re not.”
Michels says that while there are some “dark corners” of the Squamish reserves that the PK’s keep an eye on, their primary job is to “observe and report” to the IFNU, then await direction.
Outside the youth centre, Palmer’s radio crackles to life. It’s Const. Anthony Cameron, one of only two First Nation members of the IFNU, requesting some backup at a Mathias Road residence. The call turns out to be routine follow-up on a prior complaint and dissolves into a lot of shop talk between the officers about unpaid overtime.
Back on patrol, this time on the Tsleil-Waututh reserve, a Mountie on Palmer’s North Van radio calls the IFNU, asking for help finding the residence of an intoxicated man, possibly known to the unit. Palmer knows him well, a “really good man, good worker” he says, adding “but everybody has their days.”
The man is given a ride home and the call will prove to be the high point in action on this night — “pretty slow, even for a Thursday,” Palmer says.
On the way to meeting a prospective West Vancouver police recruit that Palmer is grooming as a potential asset to the IFNU — the man is from the Squamish Nation — we roll by a loud apartment party at a spot known to the INFU and North Vancouver Mounties as “The Condos.” With four police units already on-scene, Palmer checks in with the watch commander.
“We just put an intox male in a taxi so he wouldn’t have to go to jail,” the commander says.
The intoxicated man isn’t one of Palmer’s contacts so we move on.
“You still have to show up when 9-1-1 gets called,” Palmer explains. “But we mainly get to stand back and say, ‘Are there other issues that could be dealt with here?’”
We arrive at the home of the recruit. He invites us into his kitchen where the paperwork to apply with the West Vancouver police sits on the counter. It’s clear that Palmer wants him on the INFU, but the recruiting process is a long and arduous one and Palmer can’t be seen to be holding his hand along the way.
“He’s got to make the West Van police first,” Palmer says, “before he can be considered for any special unit.”
While there are two First Nations officers on the IFNU — Const. Cameron hails from Manitoba and Const. Joey Starr is from Hazelton, B.C. — belonging to a local nation makes this recruit of particular interest to the unit.
With his four-year-old daughter eating cupcakes beside him and his wife and baby in the hall, the recruit signs the entrance papers and hands Palmer the positive results of his eye exam.
“Yep, eyesight is very important,” Palmer says, conjuring the totem of the watchful thunderbird. “Suddenly, having 20/20 vision actually means something.”