An Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer who “went beyond the call of normal duty” to help aboriginal youth on a remote reserve in northwestern Ontario has won an award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Sergeant Jeff Simpkins from the Aboriginal Policing Bureau received the award for his contribution to a unique OPP initiative designed to provide disadvantaged aboriginal youth with “a positive and culturally-relevant experience.”
Through the program, called North of 50 / COPS and KIDS, Sergeant Simpkins and mentors work with youth in the Ojibway First Nation community of Pikangikum, 100 kilometres northwest of Red Lake in northwestern Ontario.
“Part of the reason for selecting Pikangikum is that it’s a community that seldom gets anything that’s positive,” says Simpkins, adding that the reserve is “a community in crisis.”
Like a lot of northern aboriginal communities, Pikangikum has been plagued by suicide, especially among young people. In 2007, 12 of the 14 suicides in Pikangikum were committed by youths under the age of 21, the youngest being 12. In 2000 the reserve, which has a population of 2,400, was reported to have the highest suicide rate in the world.
“It’s very much known in the community about suicide,” says Simpkins. “The kids—just about every single one of them has been touched in some way by suicide, so we built in a component we call our ‘feelings and emotions teachings.’”
This includes an open dialogue session about suicide and who the children can or should turn to if they feel sad or feel like they might harm themselves.
“Eventually we have the kids actually talk to us and teach us about the things that they’ve gone through, so we run it in a way that we use a traditional healing circle format,” Simpkins says.
There have been three camps so far, each lasting a week. Simpkins says that although at first the children were shy and reluctant, the trust has grown and they now look forward to the camps.
“They participate more, they’re more enlightened. They’re more alive just by virtue of the fact that we’ve exposed them to the basic necessities of life such as good shelter, good food, some love, some care, and a good program.”
The camps are held in a remote cabin about eight miles from the reserve itself. The cabin is well equipped with bunk beds and a propane stove and fridge, and all the meals are prepared from scratch.
“That’s built in the program to show them a healthy lifestyle and healthy food choices, and to show them that it’s easy to prepare good food if you have the food available,” Simpkins says.
“It’s kind of neat to have them in a location where they don’t have to worry about shelter, food, or being properly looked after.”
When the discussion turns to the abuse of solvents or alcohol, Simpkins says the Pikangikum youth tell him they do it because they’re bored. The North of 50 program gives them something to occupy their time.
“During that week we keep them busy from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed. That includes some classroom sessions, we fish with them, we have some fitness sessions—it’s a real well rounded syllabus.”
Simpkins, who developed the North of 50 program, has worked in aboriginal policing for 18 of his 23 years as a police officer. He received the Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award on October 4th at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference in Denver, Colorado.
He says the North of 50 program is designed in such a way that it can be used anywhere. This week he’s meeting with Gary Reid, chief of the Wikwemikong Tribal Police Service on Manitoulin Island who is interested in bringing the program to that community.
However, while the program may be delivered to any community, the people involved can’t be just anyone, says Simpkins.
“You need people who are patient, understanding, and people with a big heart. If they don’t have all three of those components then they’re the wrong people. They need to be somebody who can sort of let the water flow off their backs if need be.”