Round dance a positive step to improving Indigenous—police relations says families of Missing and Murdered

Members of the Prince Albert Police Service and the Prince Albert Indigenous community take part in a ceremonial round dance at Senator Allan Bird Memorial Centre on Saturday, Oct. 26. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, 18 are devoted exclusively to police, courts and corrections.

On Saturday, police and RCMP officers from the Prince Albert area were out trying to put those calls into action. The occasion was the second annual Feast and Round Dance Honouring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons at the Senator Allan Bird Memorial Centre in Prince Albert.

The Prince Albert Police Service and Saskatchewan RCMP co-hosted the event, which was held in Saskatoon last year. For the families of those who have gone missing, it was a welcoming and touching gesture.

“I believe it is a positive,” said Carson Poitras, whose step-daughter Happy Charles went missing in Prince Albert more than two years ago. “It helps with the healing process. It helps establish better lines of communication and better lines of trust between Indigenous people and authorities.”

Elder Dave Larocque opened Saturday’s round dance opened with a pipe ceremony and teaching with members of the Prince Albert Police Service. There were also honour songs sung by local youth, and afterwards, local police officers served a meal to those in attendance. The goal is to start repairing broken community ties, strengethen those that are already there, and implement some of those Calls to Action.

“It’s important for Prince Albert and it’s important for all other police because there’s historically been a divide between police and Indigenous peoples,” PAPS Indigenous Resource Officer Erin Parenteau explained. “We’re working hard towards that reconciliation.”

“It was emotional for us,” Poitras added. “They asked our granddaughters to sing. They made a traditional honour song, and they mixed it with a new song they had written. One of the girls had a dream about the words of that song, and once they got the words figured out they put it to a beat and a tune. It seems to be something that people get emotional about, which is what they want. They want people to heal by that song, and I think it’s working.”

The RCMP have committed to holding two more round dances in the future, although they haven’t decided on a final location. Parenteau said there’s a huge need for these types of events in the community, as evidence by the people who showed up. Saturday’s crowd didn’t just include local Prince Albert residents. There were even a few attendees who drove in from out of province just to be a part of it.

“People are wanting this,” Parenteau said. “So we’re bringing it.”

Round dance a success despite stiff sporting competition says RCMP

Saskatchewan RCMP are committed to hosting at least two more feasts and round dances honouring missing and murdered Indigenous persons, but the event’s long-term future hasn’t been decided.

Prince Albert hosted the second annual feast and round dance at the Senator Allan Bird Memorial Centre on Saturday. The event drew attendees from both inside and outside the province.

Mark Fisher, the commanding officer for RCMP in Saskatchewan, said attendance in Prince Albert was fantastic, especially among the youth. However, he stopped short of saying it will be a guaranteed annual event once the initial four-year commitment ends.

“We’ll see as we go,” said Fisher, who attended Saturday’s round dance along with Prince Albert Police Chief Jon Bergen and Deputy Chief Jason Stonechild. “When you see a turnout like this, it’s hard to say no. It’s exciting at the time when you’re there. There is a lot of work that goes into them, but a lot of value that comes out in building relationships and community and showing support for the families.”

Fisher was especially impressed considering the feast and round dance fell on the same night as two premier sporting events: the Saskatchewan Roughrider game in Edmonton and the NHL’s Heritage Classic at Mosaic Stadium in Regina. He said that speaks to just how important the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people is, and how strong the support is for families who are still searching.

There are currently 134 missing persons in the province of Saskatchewan, 61 of which are of Aboriginal descent. Fisher said they’re well aware of how important those cases are, not only to families, but to entire communities. He also said things have changed in past 10 years, particularly around how investigators keep in touch with the victim’s loved ones.

“I think that there’s far more expertise in these types of investigations, and we continue to develop expertise in them,” he said. “I think we’ve improved our communication with the involved families, and I would hope, in most cases, our understanding of the importance of that. Many of these are long-long-term investigations and it’s important to stay in contact and continue to support those families. Once you get into year two or year three … it’s extremely important that they know that these cases are active, that they’re still being investigated.”

New technologies and investigative techniques, like different types of DNA testing, have helped keep several older investigations alive. However, RCMP are also always on the look out for unanticipated confessions, which can sometimes show up at the most unexpected times.

Fisher said the criminal acts that lead to the disappearances of missing and murdered Indigenous people often “weigh heavily” on the conscience of those who commit them. Even decades after a disappearance, he explained, RCMP still keep an eye out for new developments and unexpected confessions.

Prince Albert Police Chief Jon Bergen echoed those sentiments during his time at the feast and round dance. Bergen said partnering with the RCMP for Saturday’s event was an easy decision. Like Fisher, he also considers it a huge success.

“You see how many people came out to support the event and I think that’s absolutely awesome,” Bergen said. “As a police chief for the City of Prince Albert, you feel the responsibility for the safety of all residents. We look at the province of Saskatchewan and we know there’s 134 people that we’re looking for … when we come to an event like this we see we’re not looking alone.”

When asked about relations between police and Indigenous communities, Bergen said there needs to be open lines communication with families and leaders. He’s confident investigators are doing what they can in Prince Albert to make that happen, something he credits to efforts from previous Prince Albert police chiefs and executives.

“We’ll always work to do better, but I feel really good about our relationship,” he explained. “We’re constantly working to build that trust.”

Of the 134 missing persons in Saskatchewan, 13 were last seen either in Prince Albert or the surrounding area.

“There are answers out there, maybe not for every one of those names, but there are answers out there and we need those,” Bergen said. “When we watch the families sing and dance here today, they need those answers, we need to bring those home, and I think I’m going to do everything I can to continue the work that we need to do to make sure that happens.”

It’s been almost a year since Bergen was named Prince Albert Police Chief. Since that time, the department has left a positive mark on at least one family looking for a loved one.

When Happy Charles disappeared in Prince Albert in April 2017, friends and family members did most of their searching on their own.

Carson Poitras, Happy’s stepfather, said they learned some hard lessons during their search, and wished there was someone there to lead the way. Being from La Ronge, they didn’t know the area or the community that well, and had to rely on a number of local volunteers to make any headway.

Fortunately, Poitras explained on Saturday, Prince Albert police have stepped in to give them the support they need.

“With Jon (Bergen) and Jason (Stonechild), who we’re dealing with right now, they seem to be much more proactive in our case,” he said. “We’re looking forward to working further with them. We felt like we weren’t getting much for results prior to this. We were kept out of the loop. We would send tips in and we wouldn’t hear what happened to those tips, and we needed to know because people were calling us (asking) ‘what happened with the tip we gave you?’ We didn’t know, so we’re looking forward to a better relationship.”

Poitras and his wife Regina said there’s still a lot more that can be done. Specifically, they’d like to see provincial offices established in Prince Albert and La Ronge to oversee missing persons cases, which would help make sure families never have to search alone. Still, they’re satisfied that progress is being made, and that’s given them some peace, even though they continue to wait for answers.