New partnership aims to speed up search and rescue

Prince Albert Grand Council grand chief Brian Hardlotte (left) signs a memorandum of understanding in March 2019 with the Prince Albert Police Service with police chief Jon Bergen (right) looks on. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

The Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC) has signed two memoranda of understanding to help aid missing person searches in Prince Albert and the north.

PAGC Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte signed MOUs on behalf of the council, one with the Prince Albert Police Service (PAPS), and the other with the RCMP. Hardlotte said new partnerships will help speed up search and rescue operations in north and central Saskatchewan.

“It think it’s very significant,” he said following the signing. “It’s a good day for the Prince Albert Grand Council.”

As part of the MOU, police and RCMP have agreed to work with Indigenous leaders and communities to utilize all available resources when searching for missing persons. In Prince Albert and area, that means greater utilization of the PAGC’s Search and Rescue Team, while in the north, it provides a more formalized way to communicate with Indigenous leaders and community members.

“Ultimately there’s a special skill set here with the PAGC Search and Rescue team that we as a police service need to leverage at times,” Prince Albert police chief Jon Bergen said following the signing. “Having the memorandum of understanding basically lays out the communication around the agreement and what we’ve done in the past, and brings clarity to what we’re going to work towards in the future.”

“Particularly in the north, we really leverage heavily that expertise of the local citizens who are in the community and know the area, know the terrain, and in many cases, know the people that we’re out there looking for,” RCMP assistant commissioner and F Division commanding officer Mark Fisher added. “For us to be able to leverage that and to have this formalized backing … is a great step forward.”

Discussions about a potential MOU sped up significantly following the disappearance of four-year-old Sweetgrass Kennedy last July. Bergen said the PAGC Search and Rescue unit brought skills and equipment the police didn’t have access to. He views the MOU as critical to future operations.

“The search and rescue training and experience available is something that we as police don’t explore to the same level,” he explained. “They’re experts in that area, so when we need that assistance, we have it available near by.”

The MOU is not legally-binding, however all three signatories were confident it would lead to greater respect, cooperation and understanding between law enforcement and First Nations communities.

Hardlotte said he’s not aware of any other partnerships of this type in Saskatchewan, but he’s hopeful it will be the first of many.

“I hope this sets a precedent for other tribal councils and First Nations throughout this country to sign something,” he said. “It’s a very good thing.”