Yukon RCMP commanding officer Chief Supt. Scott Sheppard addresses reporters on Sept. 29, 2022. The territorial Justice minister has laid out the force’s policing priorities for 2023-24. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

Yukon RCMP commanding officer Chief Supt. Scott Sheppard addresses reporters on Sept. 29, 2022. The territorial Justice minister has laid out the force’s policing priorities for 2023-24. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

RCMP stepping up enforcement around Whitehorse Emergency Shelter, commanding officer says

Justice minister outlines 2023-24 policing priorities in letter that doesn’t mention shelter

The Yukon RCMP’s commanding officer is directing the police force to step up enforcement around the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter.

In a July 20 interview, Chief Supt. Scott Sheppard said people can expect to see more enforcement in and around the area.

While Sheppard recognizes the complex, interwoven issues affecting vulnerable people who use the shelter, he has heard “loud and clear” from the business community about their concerns.

“The shelter is very much front and center in my thinking and in our members thinking,” he said.

“We need to empower these folks to access the resources that they need, but we don’t want to be enabling behavior that is either disruptive or counterproductive, not just for them, but for everyone that lives in the area, so it’s a delicate balance.”

The Yukon’s Justice minister has set out the Yukon RCMP’s policing priorities for 2023-24 in a letter to RCMP “M” division’s commanding officer. The letter makes no mention of the shelter, located at 405 Alexander St. in downtown Whitehorse, which is a magnet for police calls.

Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee’s June 7 letter to Sheppard indicates the Justice department, the Yukon Police Council and community partners provide the basis for the territory’s policing priorities.

“The RCMP’s efforts, dedication and contributions in working towards actualizing the policing priorities over the last year have been unwavering,” McPhee said.

“The policing priorities build on priorities from previous years, with a focussed approach to allow the RCMP to effect substantial and long-term change in supporting First Nations, visible minorities, vulnerable populations and Yukoners as a whole.”

McPhee notes a key challenge involves combating the substance-use health emergency.

The minister’s priorities are divided into three themes: building public trust, targeting toxic illicit drugs and serious crime and policing with First Nations.

“The toxic illicit drug supply and serious crimes that plague our communities require ongoing efforts by Yukon RCMP to ensure the safety of Yukoners,” McPhee wrote.

“Maintaining collaborative efforts with partners such as the safer communities and neighbourhoods unit and the mobile crisis unit ‘Car 867’ will support increased safety for Yukoners and is necessary to combat the illicit drug supply and reduce serious crimes.”

Some of the primary objectives McPhee outlines under more targeted policing of drugs and crimes include working with partners and seeking solutions or assistance with resources to help as needed, deploying dedicated resources to address drug and gang-related crimes and investigating the most serious current and historical crimes in the territory.

“Yukon’s RCMP ‘M’ Division has demonstrated exceptional progress in addressing the policing priorities from this past year, which continues to speak volumes to their capability and effectiveness in delivering services to Yukoners,” McPhee said.

“I continue to be confident that the upcoming year will be no different, and that Yukon’s RCMP will continue their efforts to support and protect Yukoners, while having action guided by these priorities.”

Sheppard agrees with the policing priorities laid out by the minister.

“I don’t see anything absent,” he said, adding that while those objectives have been generally similar in the last several years, the biggest driver of police operations is the calls for service from the public.

“Police independence is such that the minister does not direct policing operations.”

In a July 19 interview, Yukon Party justice critic Brad Cathers said the Official Opposition agrees with parts of the minister’s letter, such as carrying out the Yukon’s strategy to address missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit-plus people and supporting trauma-informed police responses.

But, overall, Cathers said the letter demonstrates how “out of touch” the Liberal government is with the electorate.

While the Yukon government gave a $3.5-million boost to RCMP in the latest budget, Cathers said there aren’t enough increased resources alongside the letter to get more officers on the ground.

“We continue to see the RCMP are not being provided with enough increased resources even to meet the population increase in the territory, let alone to meet the surge in drug trafficking and organized crime.”

The results of a public survey conducted last year by RCMP to guide how Whitehorse’s police force should divvy up resources identified illegal drug-related offences, property crime and driving-related matters as the top three policing priorities.

“There is no mention of property crime in the minister’s letter. There’s also no mention of road safety,” Cathers said.

He criticized the minister for not mentioning the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter, despite recent letters from business owners and Whitehorse Mayor Laura Cabott pleading for action. He also mentioned two extensive reports done for the government that highlight issues and police data that shows 405 Alexander St. makes up around nine to 11 per cent of all RCMP calls downtown.

“There’s no mention of the shelter or the serious problems that it’s causing for nearby residents and businesses,” he said.

In his criticism, Cathers cited a report prepared January 2022 for the Yukon RCMP by the Criminal Intelligence Service of British Columbia/Yukon Territory, which is a law enforcement agency that conducts threat assessments specific to organized crime. The report indicates organized crime has persisted and is becoming entrenched with at least five organized crime networks made up of more than 250 individuals located inside and outside the Yukon. The report refers to the impact of the Yukon having the leading rate per capita of illicit drug toxicity deaths, which was 48.4 per 100,000 people in 2021, surpassing British Columbia.

“Despite those very concerning numbers from the RCMP, the minister’s letter regarding policing priorities is light on talking about organized crime and illegal drug trade, and it’s weak on actions,” Cathers said.

Sheppard argued that organized crime is a major focus for RCMP from a policing perspective, and that these types of investigations are ongoing.

“To say that [the minister’s letter is] light on organized crime is not, you know, particularly a true statement,” he said.

“Some things are just core or germane to policing and they don’t really need to be to be spelled out.”

Sheppard said funding and resources for police is always a pressure, although the Yukon’s contingent has seen “modest increases.”

“There’s not a single police agency across the country who probably wouldn’t say they could use more resources,” he said.

Annie Blake, Yukon NDP MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin, wants to see the RCMP focus on building positive relations with communities. She says there’s still lots of work to do as she reflects on the history of relations between RCMP and communities, and the ongoing process of truth and reconciliation.

Blake wonders what building public trust looks like in those respective communities.

“Relationship building is the start,” she said, adding that police can do more in communities with more support.

“Without good relations, how do we move forward?”

Sheppard said RCMP is already an integral part of communities. For example, he nodded to former and present RCMP employees currently involved in the North American Indigenous Games.

“In fact, we are filling the gaps where there should be other agencies involved providing those services,” he said.

“We try and fill that gap, and do it to the best of our ability, but our number one responsibility remains public safety.”

Contact Dana Hatherly at dana.hatherly@yukon-news.com