I recently had the chance to catch up with producer and host of Tribal Police Files, Steve Sxwithul’txw. Debuting Friday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. ET on APTN, the 13-part documentary series explores the challenges faced by officers serving on B.C.’s only tribal police force, in the Lillooet region.
We covered a lot of ground in this brief conversation!
What was your motivation for creating a program about this particular police service team? What do you hope viewers come away with when they watch Tribal Police Files?
Steve Sxwithul’txw: For me, the thought behind Tribal Police Files was brought about a number of years ago from my personal experience as a police officer for eight years in B.C., around four of them with Stl’atl’imx Police Services. I have heard other police services across the country say, ‘No, we are community policing; we are focused on the citizens,’ but really that is not the case. However, these officers in the Lillooet region, they demonstrate the way community policing should really be done. They perform their duties while being culturally sensitive, being very understanding, and being very upfront with the people they police. Most of the people they deal with on a regular basis are people they know on a first-name basis.
But the thing that I really wanted to highlight: that these officers are just regular people. These are everyday people that have a job to do but, as well, they protect the public they want to serve and I think people, in general, have to respect that. They keep people safe, they have families, they have people that love them that they go home to at night. As a viewer, you are going to get attached to these officers and their families because you can see how forthright they are and how honest they are. I think that is something a lot of people in that community and across Canada do not know about police officers in general; they are everyday people with everyday lives.
Is the Stl’atl’imx Tribal Police team unique from other self-administered policing programs across Canada?
This is an Indigenous Police Service that focuses on specific communities and specific land bases within the interior B.C. land region, so from that perspective yes for sure. The officers are provincial police officers and have powers throughout B.C., but they focus specifically on areas within the Stl’atl’imx Nation. Their style of policing—the way they deal with people—is much different than you would expect from big city police services across Canada and the RCMP. This is just a totally different approach. This is true community policing, which I think people will certainly appreciate when they start watching the show and start identifying with what the officers are trying to accomplish.
Foremost, they are trying to deal with people with respect and dignity, and they are dealing with people that they know. These officers are a part of the community, they are ingrained in community events, and they want to serve their people. That is a really important aspect that we want to highlight with the show.
I think the philosophy in Lillooet is the same with all other First Nations Police Services across Canada. One of the reasons this program came about is quite simple: the surrounding police services were out of touch with the people. They did not know them. The RCMP does not have a great reputation with First Nations across Canada. It never has. And that is one of the reasons I think that this type of policing strategy was developed in the 90s; so that First Nations could reach out and form their own service. This type of programming was seen as something that was culturally sensitive and something that was very responsive to the communities’ needs.
What do you hope other communities that are seeking to improve their own services take from the approaches adopted by the Stl’atl’imx Tribal Police Services?
I would encourage Chiefs and Councils in communities across Canada to think about this as a viable option. It is my understanding that the First Nations Policing Policy will be reviewed by the Trudeau government. Whether that comes true I don’t know, but it does need an update. It has needed an update for the past 15 years and it truly will affect whether people will stand behind First Nations policing. When an update occurs it will change the way you view police officers within your community. Sometimes [community policing] works, sometimes it doesn’t, but if you have a well-balanced board that is receptive to the needs of the officers, you are going to find that you are going to have a very, very successful police service if you decide to go down that road.
For those who watch who are not Indigenous, like myself, what do you hope we take away from Tribal Police Files if we choose to tune in? Why should we tune in?
It is important for the non-Indigenous audience to really try and make an effort to try and understand who we are as people. We are not all drunks, we are not people who have lower education standards, we are not people who continue to suffer in peril. We are people who are struggling to come through one the most tumultuous times in this country’s history. I am waving the flag of residential schools in terms of how it has affected our people in general. I mean, the Indian Act from there on has just turned our lives upside down and we continue to suffer from that.
I think where the non-Indigenous audience comes from is just not knowing the true history and not understanding where we come from. So for people who want to watch our show, yeah you will see some negative interactions with police. But you know what? You are going to see some culture, you are going to see some tradition and you are going to see some elders and you are going to see some youth. You will see a little bit of everything about a people who are trying to find their way in modern Canadian society and we use the police officers as a conduit to that. I think it is a real learning opportunity for our non-Indigenous audience to follow these officers, get to know them over the course of these 13 episodes, and then make your own decision, at the end of season, about what you really think policing is like on reserve.
I was really struck from a philosophical position, this concept of Bridging. We hear Bridging and Reconciliation. These are the popular catchphrases, and yet as I watched this show, I was struck by the irony that these Indigenous officers are enforcing colonial policy and still approaching their duty, in a manner that is conducive to healing for the people within the communities.
That was something that I struggled with during my eight years as a police officer. You are using the laws of the land that were brought in by the colonial power. You are arresting people and taking people to jail. But in retrospect, ultimately, we are trying to keep people safe. We are trying to protect people on a regular basis so that they are not harming themselves, they are not harming others. And yes, that is right, it is a bridge to a modern-day society off the reserve that is something that our people still struggle with on a daily basis.
To be honest, this involves racism and stereotyping which is very much alive in today’s communities. So in a way, if this show bridges that a little bit, I hope so. And if it brings a broader understanding as to what police officers on reserve have to deal with daily, even better. I am hoping that people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous will come along for the ride with us and feel like we are trying to make a difference in our communities with these police officers.
My thanks to Steve Sxwithul’txw for taking the time to speak with me!
Tribal Police Files debuts Friday, March 3, and can be seen Fridays at 7:30 p.m. ET on APTN.