Standing on blue floor mats, members of Ahousaht’s fledgling security team practise taking each other down.
After a stressful Christmas season, their first as a team, the men travelled to the capital region from their island reserve near Tofino to get trained in self-defence and basic security training.
“Through the holidays, weapons were drawn, knives had been pulled on Ahousaht security,” says Kurt John during a break in the course taught by the Commissionaires, who are based on Cloverdale Aveune in Saanich.
The goal in training is to learn how to diffuse a situation before it gets physical, he explains. “We’re not there to be stabbed or shot, but at the same time, we think we need those kind of protections.”
The Commissionaires has worked with several First Nations, training new employees as prison guards or security staff, said Stan Verran, CEO of the Victoria division. But this is the first time it has trained First Nations to run their own security team.
“It is very unique,” says Ahousaht’s deputy chief, Curtis Dick. “It’s not a new idea, but it’s taking the next step where it’s being supported and funded.”
It’s been one year since the 10-member team launched and so far, the part-time volunteer job has proven more demanding than any of its members suspected.
The team started with a conversation.
“I invited these guys to sit at my kitchen table to discuss,” says John, a recovering alcoholic. After being released from the Comox Valley treatment centre more than two years ago, he saw the need to protect his community from within. “It’s our homeland, so why get somebody else from the outside to look after it?” he asks.
The majority of the Ahousaht people live off reserve, in Victoria, Port Alberni and other communities. On reserve, the 650-member community struggle with high rates of alcoholism, crime and suicide.
“Ahousaht’s always in the paper but it’s never positive,” John says. “You have to (show) leadership by example.”
The team was deputized by its hereditary chiefs to impose band council resolutions. Duties include imposing a curfew for youth, and confiscating alcohol on the dry reserve.
In August, the team enforced its council’s controversial orders by escorting chronic drug and alcohol offenders off reserve for mandatory treament. Standing by to keep the peace, but duty-bound not to participate, was the RCMP.
“Some security members didn’t understand these limitations,” explains Sgt. Jeff Preston, of the Tofino-Ahousaht detachment. “Some other people … were upset with us for not helping.”
The band resolutions aren’t federal law and RCMP are restricted by the criminal code and other federal statutes, he explains. “There are certainly some growing pains outlining the roles each organization will have … (but) ultimately, our end goal is the same. ”
As the security team takes on more responsibility, both Preston and John say their relationship is good.
“The more eyes and ears that are on the road, that certainly helps in any community,” Preston says.
When traditional and mainstream law overlap, the two enforcement groups work co-operatively.
Ahousaht security team makes citizens’ arrests, assists people to their jail cell and calls on the RCMP when crime happens.
“We’re there before some things actually happen, so we become a witness at the same time,” John says. “We get called more than the RCMP does,” he says. “It’s slowly coming.”
Getting certified in basic security training is one more step to being recognized by the community, says Dick.
“We supported them in that, because that’s one of the things that people ask: Are they trained? What qualifies them?”
And they might be back to Victoria one day to take the next step.
“Eventually, that’s going to be one of our goals, to become peace officers down the road,” Dick says.
Back in the classroom, instructor Dusty Miller demonstrates how a simple move can restrain without injuring. “All these guys gave up their own demons to do that job and I admire that totally,” he says.
Student Wally Thomas chuckles, wincing slightly as John twists his right arm, demonstrating a move they’ve learned.
“I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to Ahousaht,” says Thomas, once freed. “I think we were on a big downfall before any of this started. It changed my life. It changed my family’s life. They have a new respect for me and the guys because were putting our lives on the line.”