New season, new location. After its first season focused on the Stl’atl’imx Nation in the Lillooet region of British Columbia, director and producer Steve Sxwithul’txw brought Tribal Police Files to Ontario, spotlighting the Rama Police Service.
The 13-episode second season—broadcast Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET on APTN—once again captures the lives of not just the Indigenous police officers on and off the job, but those living in the community as well. In Saturday’s first episode, we hit the road for a routine traffic stop, learn the history of the area—including how the casino necessitated the police force’s growth—and recall how a devastating accident tore the area apart.
We spoke to Steve Sxwithul’txw ahead of Saturday’s return.
Why did you decide to come east and to specifically focus on the Rama police force in Season 2?
Steve Sxwithul’txw: The decision was pretty easy when deciding which community we would highlight. We put a vast call out to First Nations communities that have their own police service, and Rama responded quite quickly. I did my research and realized immediately that this was one of those services that has pretty much everything and it was very high functioning and had a lot of the amenities that some police services that I know, don’t. It would give a really unique perspective, especially with the large casino in place, and how that could change the dynamics of the community over a period of time. So there was some history there to tell, and watching their growth and knowing that they have this amazing first responder crew. I had every level that deals with their people and takes care of them. I thought that was a no-brainer in my opinion, for Season 2.
Doing a little bit of digging into the First Nations policing program in the first place, I had no clue that that even existed. It was a real learning experience for me.
SS: Oh, that’s good. Yeah, it’s been in place since 1995, and the Liberals came in in early 2015, 2016, and they brushed it up with a bit of money and enhanced it a bit. Still, a long way to go across the country, but it was a good first start.
You said that Rama responded. What about the First Nations community on the whole? Was it hard to sell the show to them and say, ‘Listen, we want to tell your stories of the community as well as the police force.’ How did that all work out?
SS: Well, any time that you have cameras in First Nation communities, in the past, especially in relation to certain media, it’s been a real negative experience for our people. As an Indigenous person, and producer, having that distinctive knowledge as a former reporter as well, knowing that we need to break down some barriers and let them know that we’re from the community. I’m not from Rama, but I’m of Indigenous ancestry here, and I’ve lived on reserve and off reserve. I certainly can connect and relate to the lifestyles in which we live on reserve across the country. It’s basically really winning over their trust, and of course, we always follow protocol with our crew. We did that through the police service and as well through the chief and council. And many meetings with them, and discussions with them about our approach and what we wanted to do.
It’s not an easy ask of a community, but at the same time, I think quite quickly, and watching through Season 1 you can see my approach in terms of how I want to relay my messaging through the work that the officers do, and as well how we want to portray the community as a whole. If you watched all of the episodes you would see quite quickly that 95 per cent of the time I’m staying in the positive light of what’s happening, and there are reasons and rationale for certain things that are happening. And using those factoids throughout the episodes, it enhances these reasons and rationale about why these things might happen and what supports might be out there, and those kinds of things. That’s something that I’m always trying to highlight.
Not only are you seeing these police officers out on duty, but you’re also finding out about their home life. So can you talk about the importance of showing their behind-the-scenes lives once the uniforms come off?
SS: I think that’s really important. I think that’s one of the premises of the brainchild of the show when I first thought of this many years ago, was that we’re people too. I see myself still as a police officer all these years later, that when you’re out in the community, and you’ve got your gun and your badge and your car, and you’re out there doing your thing, that people just see you as this robot doing your job. When you take that all off, we’re all the same, we all have children, we all have families, we all have lives, and it’s really peeling back the layers of that officer, so you can see who he/she is, so you can a common understanding and be able to relate to that person a little bit more when you see them in community.
It just breaks down that barrier of the badge and the gun, and you’re there to take our kids away, which back in the day, and in the colonial times where our kids were taken away by police officers, there’s still that stigma out there. It’s really important to make sure that we highlight that in a visual way to just show that they’re everyday, great people, which honestly, all those officers we work with are incredible. Just amazing human beings.
From a production standpoint, what were some of the logistical challenges that you have? What were some of the logistical challenges of filming a documentary series where you don’t have a studio? You’re on the fly all the time.
SS: Well, the road is your studio, so wherever they’re going, we’re going, and logistically it can be a nightmare to be challenging. We’ve had the chase car get lost and going Code Three going to a call, we have radios, we have phones, we have that kind of technology to let our second crew know where we’re at and where we’re going. There was always a crew in the car with the officers responding to whatever it might be, and usually it’s myself in the back along with our sound guy. But it’s a careful, careful balance and the officers, we prep them. We went through the basics of what we require as a film crew to make sure that they’re aware that we have somebody that’s competent, a former police officer, who’s a producer, who understands what you might be dealing with in certain instances. You can actually talk to me about some of these files and cases, and I’ll know how to respond and know what to do, and share advice back and forth, which is amazing.
Number two, our safety is my responsibility moreso than it is on the officers, so don’t worry about us. I’ll be taking care of all of that. Just do your job, and we’ll make sure that we follow through in a safe way, and we won’t jeopardize whatever you’re doing in any way, shape or form that would impede on your work. So logistically, that was always a challenge to make sure that we had a chase car following, and the dynamics of that can change at any time. You just go with the flow. You can’t predict these kind of things, and you just have to go with what’s delivered, and try to make the best with what you have in the moment.
What can you say about what’s coming up in Season 2?
SS: We have a lot of stories that impact these officers. What you’re going to see from each episode as we go on is a recreation of those intense moments that really shook officers up, that really made them think about the work that they do, and how it affects them on an everyday basis, and how those little things such as PTSD might come into conversations about how they affect your everyday life and you can see that as we became friends with these officers, and how much that does impact many members that are out there across the country working when you have to deal with these tough files, so you’re going to see some water rescues, obviously some more tragedy, and as well some fun stories too as well. Some really cute stories involving wildlife and wilderness.
Of course the elders, the powwows, community events, which is really important, and you’ll see that we’ve ingrained a lot of Ojibwa language, which is really important for us as a production, is that language revitalization is something that we are honestly working so hard to make sure that we portray it in a different way that even though there’s probably not a lot of people that can understand the language, other than some of the elders in the community, there might be people beyond that, but we want to make sure that that’s something for the kids, for the youth, to say, ‘Hey, that’s really cool. That’s our language.’ And be able to hear it and see it on television happening, and that’s really what’s an integral part of what we’re trying to portray. So you’ll see a lot of that through all 13 episodes.
Tribal Police Files airs Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET on APTN.