The remote northwest B.C. Tahltan Nation community of Iskut has been lobbying the RCMP and the provincial government for more than 20 years for its own police detachment with no luck.
Iskut band chief Marie Quock said the place is now a “lawless community” due to the increased presence of drug dealers, assaults, regular instances of impaired driving and an erratic police presence.
The nearest RCMP detachment is 83 kilometres north in Dease Lake, where seven officers watch over that community, as well as Iskut, Telegraph Creek, Good Hope Lake and a 600-kilometre stretch of Hwy 37 North.
The vast area of oversight leaves lengthy response times of over an hour for crimes reported in places such as Iskut – even longer in the winter owing to road conditions – said Quock, adding that the consequences can be tragic in cases of mental health and suicide-related calls.
“If we have a gun-wielding person in our community, there’s no way the police will get here immediately… whatever’s going to happen will happen before they get to our community.”
In the past decade, the region has grown as mining camps have setup nearby towns such as Iskut. The Tahltan First Nation supports the mining activity, but it does lead to a notable increase in social issues, said Quock.
“Every two weeks, there’s people who would be coming out of camp… especially when there’s a party and we have to deal with issues of people drinking and driving into our community or assaults.”
The additional incidents put pressure on the two-person nursing station faced with helping people under the influence of drugs and alcohol without the support of RCMP, Meanwhile, officers aren’t there to accept forensic evidence in the event of sexual assault.
“We don’t have the skills to break up these fights,” said Carolyn MacKinnon nursing manager of Iskut Valley Health Services.”Even an RCMP presence in such cases settles peoples emotions, it’s very important to my job and how we function.”
The lack of police presence in Iskut hampers the hiring of nurses, MacKinnon said.
Quock worries the opioid crisis that haunts B.C. is going have a bigger impact on Iskut soon as drug peddlers frequent the community and leave by the time the RCMP get there.
Criteria needs to be met for a police force to be approved
But despite two decades of lobbying, Quock says authorities have been “shuffling responsibilities back and forth” when it comes to their request for a continual police presence.
“We brought it to the province of B.C. a few times, but they would say it’s the federal government’s responsibility,” said Quock.
“At one time we were told Iskut is ineligible for an RCMP detachment because we don’t have enough of a population.”
But while Iskut has a small population of 320 to 350 people, statistics provided by the Dease Lake RCMP show that 113 case files out of 645 calls in 2020 came from the band.
Responding to Iskut’s repeated request for a detachment, North District RCMP Chief Supt. Warren Brown said he’s aware of the need, calling the process complex and one that would require provincial funding.
RCMP policy now requires small detachments to have at least three officers and include adequate buildings and living quarters.
The Dease Lake detachment is provincially funded, with two officers’ salaries paid for through the Community Tripatriate Agreement, a joint partnership involving the federal government, province and local First Nation communities.
The process of getting a new detachment begins with Brown providing a report to the province containing an analysis of calls for service, the type of criminal activity underway and a comparison with other communities also wanting a police presence – a difficult case to make when the provincial budget for policing is less than one per cent.
A statement from the province confirmed that provincial policing and security branch staff met with members from the Iskut Band in June to discuss the process.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth will then assess the request based on whether it meets this criteria.
Tahltan government threatens to halt economic development
Tahltan officials have now asked to meet with Farnworth.
Tahltan Central Government president Chad Norman Day has said it is “disrespectful” and “shameful” there are so few RCMP officers covering the traditional territory, which makes up 11 per cent of the province’s geography.
After “decades of asking nicely,” the Tahltan might have to halt economic development unless there is a more equitable arrangement with the province, he said.
“In 2020, exploration expenditures on projects in Tahltan Territory was over $200 million with production values for active mines over $1.2 billion.”
In addition to policing resources, Day is calling for major improvements to the highway and Telegraph Creek Road, adding that British Columbians in the northwest “deserve better and we need to funnel more of the wealth taken out of Tahltan territory back into ensuring our region becomes more safe.”