Looking back it's hard to believe that I am approaching 17 and a half years as a police officer. My career in policing started with the RCMP at Depot Division in Regina , Saskatchewan. I still remember arriving at Depot on my first day thinking 'What have I got myself into?'
Depot was a challenge, 6 months of intense training, 2 thousand miles from home and sleeping in a dorm with 29 other men. Graduation couldn't come soon enough.The final weeks went by quickly, I remember having to choose my top 10 desired postings, and I got my top pick, North Vancouver.
It was quite the learning curve those first few years. I remember my Field Trainer was still a rookie himself with less than 2 years in. One of the things I recall hearing was that we were not welcome on the Squamish Nation Reserve lands that were geographically part of the area we served. It was considered unsafe for us to enter particularly at night on our own. Following what seemed to me a short 3 or 4 months of field training I was told that I was to begin working on my own. This was quite a surprise as I'd beem expecting the full 6 months touted in the RCMP literature. I found the thought of this both exciting and terrifying.
It wasn't long until I found myself drawn to the Squamish Nation's Mission Reserve. Slowly driving the streets, I was greeted with stares, with some of the residents disappearing inside their homes. I got more than the odd "Who are you looking for?" from some of the folks. I would explain that I was just getting to know the area and its residents. After a few weeks of consistently patrolling the rez I noticed that I was now being greeted by smiles and waves from most of the adults accompanied by children running up to my car to say hello. The children's greeting grew even more enthusiastic after I started carrying 7-11 Slurpee coupons to hand out. It wasn't long until I began walking the reserve which was much to the surprise/shock of the RCMP dispatch. This new style of patrolling led to lots of long conversations with residents about how RCMP members were described as legless as they were never seen walking the rez, just stoically driving by and never getting out of their cars. It also began the conversation that I was an Indigenous officer.
About 9 months into my time with the RCMP I was told they were looking at starting a Aboriginal Policing Unit comprised of a Sergeant and two Constables. I was to be one of the Constables. This both excited and saddened me as I had made the decision to make the move to the Vancouver Police Department. Among my reasons for the change was a desire for more big city action. When I informed my superiors and co-workers of my decision I was greeted with blank stares by some and outright cold disapproving looks from others. Much to my surprise I received a glowing letter of reference from the Sergeant of my Watch.
I began my time in the VPD assigned to District 4 Team 6. District 4 encompasses the Musqueam Indian Reserve. It was a different energy with the VPD; fast paced and colorful personalities.
I had felt an undercurrent of prejudice/bias within the RCMP in North Vancouver but it was never overt. Though it was rare, in the VPD there were instances when I would hear derogatory terms used to describe Indigenous people. As I am the type of person who speakes their mind I would confront the offensive behaviour when it happened. I do still hear the odd statement or question about Indigenous peoples but more from a lack of knowledge than intolerance.
Not surprisingly I found myself drawn to the Musqueam Reserve. And not surprisingly I heard the same sentiments from my VPD co-workers, that we weren't wanted on the reserve lands and that it was unsafe especially at night if we were gathered in numbers. I was pleased when my work partner took an interest in patrolling the rez even when there weren't calls. We were met with the same reaction I'd had when I'd started patrolling the Mission Reserve in North Vancouver, suspicion and curiosity. It wasn't long however before we were greeted by many with friendly waves and smiles. At some point we began pulling the calls from the call board coming from Musqueam, calls that most of our colleagues avoided like the plague. It didn't take long for the Call Takers and our NCO to notice and we became the go-to people for calls on the rez. After a few months we were invited to community events including the Band Hall. Imagine that, treating people with compassion and caring being reciprocated. Seems like a simple formula. Remember that none of these people knew I was Indigenous at first, being of Cree and French blood I was often asked if I was Mexican, Spanish or Italian. Race wasn't the determining factor in relationship building as it was developing with good intention and compassion in our hearts. That having been said maybe the smiles were a little bigger and the hugs a little warmer when they found out I was Indigenous.
There is a Squamish saying. To be of “en cho mot” (one mind, one heart). This my prayer for all of us.
From the VPD Board website:
Constable Rick Lavallee has worked as an Aboriginal Liaison Officer since 2005. His focus is on youth, helping them make healthy choices, while respecting their unique culture. Constable Lavallee also takes part in the "Pulling Together Canoe Journey" each year, along with several other VPD officers and staff. This initiative brings together law enforcement personnel and Aboriginal youth to build relationships and trust. The 10-day journey through hundreds of kilometres of BC waterways stops at several First Nations communities, with the goal of reconciliation through learning and understanding. Every summer, the VPD runs the Aboriginal Cadet Program. The cadets, aged 19-29, have Aboriginal ancestry, and divide their time between different sections of the Department. The program promotes a better understanding between police and the Aboriginal community, and the hope os that the cadets will one day become VPD members.