Local leadership, plus police presence, can make a big difference in a community

Chief Eddie Tallman was leader of Whitefish Lake First Nation at Atikameg in the late 1980s.

Joe McWilliams
For South Peace News

When it comes to how much difference a proper law enforcement program can make in a community, there are lots of examples.

One of them is about how a program that started from scratch in 1987 went a long way to reducing some bad things that were happening in a community in the Lesser Slave Lake area. It comes courtesy of Brian Pitcairn, a former employee of the band.

Atikameg had its share of problems – many of them caused by consumption of alcohol. Pitcairn says newly-elected Whitefish First Nation Chief Eddie Tallman wanted to do something about it. The band administration was just being set up and Pitcairn was hired to help run it.

“[Chief Tallman] noted we didn’t have good support from police. There was a plain lack of law enforcement in the community,” Pitcairn says.

So they came up with a plan. Part of the plan was to get greater powers for the band constable, a fellow named Colin Riley. This required negotiations with the feds and the province, as well as discussion with High Prairie RCMP. With their support, Pitcairn says, Riley got his expanded powers and was able – for example – to start stopping drunk drivers and charging them.

Staff Sgt. Duncan Will in High Prairie “gave it tremendous support,” Pitcairn recalls.

Will, long since retired and still living in the High Prairie area, said last week he remembers Chief Tallman being “much admired” for his role in the community, and “instrumental in fostering better relations.”

Band Const. Riley, he says, “was invaluable to the detachment, as a contact and a first responder.”

Provincial approval for the expanded powers required a law-enforcement plan. It had three main points. One was to reduce impaired driving, “because that was killing people – literally,” Pitcairn says.

The second focus of the enforcement plan was “to break up big house parties involving alcohol,” he says.

“Out of these things came drunk driving and fights and so on.”

The third priority in the Whitefish policing program was to do something about a situation that happened all-too-often. Guys would get drunk, Pitcairn says, fight with their wives and “end up throwing the wife and the kids out of the home.”

The band council came to have the view that if anybody got to stay in the home it was the mother and her kids, not the drunk husband. So they empowered the constable to do something about it. This included taking the guy to High Prairie to spend a couple of days behind bars if that’s what it took.

“I think it went very well,” says Pitcairn. “Over the life of the program we shut down all the bootlegging in the community. And we made it known, if you think you’re going to throw the family out and stay in the house…guess what?”

It went even further; a lot further.

“Council outlawed the consumption of liquor in private homes, for the sake of peace and good order. We had 25 convictions in provincial court.”

The program ran from 1987-89.

The second phase of the community enforcement program began with the hiring of a Mohawk from the Six Nations in Ontario to replace the departed Riley, Karl Berkeley by name. He had professional policing experience.

Then nearby Gift Lake was approached, to see about joining forces in community policing.

“Our guys had no authority in Gift Lake,” Pitcairn recalls, and shutting down bootlegging and drinking and such in one community had the predictable effect of making it worse in the other.

“They thought it was a good idea.”

The result of that for a time was a team of seven constables – three full-time and four parttime, with Berkeley in charge. He had a solid working relationship with the High Prairie RCMP, and things improved in the communities.

“The benefits for both communities were huge,” Pitcairn says.

All of this, it can be pointed out, was a long time ago.

What’s the situation since then? Pitcairn says there was a lull for a few years, where law enforcement wasn’t as effective. More recently, he says he’s heard the band has a new agreement with the RCMP, resulting in a constable attached to Atikameg full-time.

“From what I’m hearing it’s having a good effect on the community,” he says.

S/Sgt. Warren Wright of the High Prairie Detachment agrees. He’s fairly new to the post, but says from what he hears, the RCMP officer dedicated to Whitefish has been “very warmly received” by chief and council and the community.

“He’s doing great things up there,” says Wright.

Attempts were made to contact the Whitefish chief and band manager for comments, but they were not returned.

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