An outdoor class on traditional First Nations practices came to an abrupt end this week after police arrived and told students to drop the knives they were using to forage for roots and plants.
High school students from Lau,Welnew Tribal School were shaken by the incident at Centennial Park in Central Saanich. A Facebook group set up to protest police actions immediately drew almost 2,000 supporters.
However, Central Saanich police defended their response, saying they needed to ensure park users were safe after a caller reported a group of young people in the park throwing knives.
“A concerned citizen phoned the dispatch centre on Monday and said they were in Centennial Park and were concerned because they observed a number of youths and one possibly had an axe,” said Central Saanich police spokeswoman Cpl. Janis Jean.
Jean said when two officers approached the group, they saw some of the young people were holding knives and told them to drop them. “There were no guns or anything and the kids did what they were told,” she said.
As soon as it became apparent it was a legitimate First Nations cultural class, the officers left, said Jean, adding good relationships with First Nations are a priority for Central Saanich police.
“But when a youth is holding a knife, we need to make sure that knife is secure before we can go any further. We need to make sure that everyone is safe.”
Central Saanich Police Chief Paul Hames, Tsartlip First Nation Chief Wayne Morris, Tsawout Chief Harvey Underwood and Central Saanich Mayor Alastair Bryson met Wednesday to discuss the incident and another meeting is planned for next week.
Bryson said he appreciated Morris and Underwood raising their concerns.
“We regret that we had to disrupt the students’ traditional practice. However, the police had an
obligation to respond to a complaint from the public,” Bryson said.
Eric Pelkey, a Tsawout elder responsible for culture, said teacher John Elliott told him some of the students were extremely frightened.
“It was the way the officers were putting their hands on their guns and the attitude of the officers,” Pelkey said.
The students were holding knives and hatchets, but were not throwing them, he said.
Pelkey said there have been previous incidents with First Nations and Central Saanich police, such as when band members were duck-hunting on reserve and police took their guns and would not listen to the explanation of Douglas Treaty rights.
“It’s just total ignorance,” he said.
About a year ago it was suggested by the RCMP that he should help plan a cross-cultural workshop with RCMP and Central Saanich police. However, plans broke down because of problems with timing, Pelkey said.
A cultural workshop would be useful, Pelkey said.
“This is not just an isolated incident. It’s an ongoing thing that our people are being treated like this by Central Saanich police.”
Jean said future meetings should help to address misunderstandings that could undermine the strong relationship between police and First Nations.
“Any dialogue is good if people are sharing ideas,” she said.