SASKATOON — Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill was the concluding speaker at a restorative justice gathering held recently at St. Anne’s Church in Saskatoon.
The Dec. 10 event was organized by The Micah Mission, which is an ecumenical group that is involved with supporting those convicted of committing crimes to reintegrate into the community through pre-release prison visits and Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA).
Weighill has been the chief of police in Saskatoon since 2006 and was recently elected to the role of president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP).
“What is driving crime?” said Weighill. “The No. 1 factor is the huge marginalization of the First Nations community.”
He noted that many people in the community do not want to hear their chief of police speak like this, but he explained that it will only get worse if we do not address this factor.
Weighill outlined the stereotypical story of a boy who grew up in a tough neighbourhood, who was poor and bullied.
“He goes to school with no breakfast. He fails a test,” Wighill went on. “He’s an outsider who is finally invited in by a gang. This friendship escalates quickly to criminal activity.”
Gang involvement is connected directly to the fear and isolation many feel before joining and to the power and belonging they experience after they do join.
The police chief praised the work of the local gang recovery program STR8UP and founder Rev. André Poilièvre for helping individuals leave the gang life.
The topic of murdered and missing Aboriginal women was also broached. Weighill said he sees this situation as a criminal issue, but also as a systemic issue of poverty, violence and a lack of education. He disagrees, though, with those who are calling for a national commission of inquiry.
“We know what the issues are, so let’s act on them,” he said. “If we spend five or six years on an inquiry, we’re going to lose momentum.”
Weighill assured the audience that he and the police service are very keen on solving the issue of the exponentially high rates of violence against Aboriginal women and that he saw it as the “Rosetta Stone” of criminology.
“If we can’t solve this issue (of high rates of violence and crime in the Aboriginal community) then we won’t solve crime in Canada,” he stated.
Weighill explained how he sees so many of the issues that face both the Aboriginal community and all in Saskatchewan as connected.
He cited a June 2013 United Way study entitled Saskatoon Plan to End Homelessness in which they tracked 23 people in Saskatoon who were the biggest cost to the civic and provincial system in terms of policing, arrests, health, emergency room visits, and other social costs. These individuals used $2.8 million worth of resources per year.
“These costs drop dramatically when they are given access to treatment, support and housing,” explained Weighill.
Weighill pointed out that the only way to move forward was for individuals and institutions to work together and co-operate, but that there were many policies that keep people from being able to do so.
“Hospitals are afraid to report gunshot and knife wounds because of the Health Protection Act . . . this keeps us from working together to help these people,” Weighill said.
Weighill also weighed in on overcrowded prisons and said there was not enough transitional support for people getting out of prison.
“We need to spend money on long-term programming,” stated Weighill, “but governments only work on a four-year term.”
One of the insights he shared was that he has spoken to other police chiefs in Canada where crime rates are incredibly low. He said that we grow accustomed to a certain crime rate and that we need to think of new approaches to the problem of crime in order to lower rates to minimal levels.
“There is a continuum of criminals out there,” Weighill said. “They can’t be punished back to health.”
The evening ended with a group discussion about the various groups in the city that concerned persons could get involved with to make a difference: ranging from the United Way, the John Howard Society and STR8UP, to the Elizabeth Fry Society, Victim Services, Salvation Army and The Lighthouse on 22nd and the Friendship Inn. One member of the audience offered that even volunteering to teach a student or new Canadian to read would be a way to create positive community support.