“So, can we search your vehicle?” is not what you expect to hear entering a community in Canada.
But that’s what greets you at the main entrance to Norway House Cree Nation in northern Manitoba.
It’s part of a multi-thousand-dollar crackdown on illegal drugs and alcohol coming into the dry reserve.
“If you refuse you have to turn around,” said security guard George Folster, one of the black-suited guards at the $600,000 station.
The “voluntary searches” came into effect Feb. 24 as part of a sweeping safety bylaw, Folster added.
Between March 1-22, a team of around-the-clock guards and safety officers checked 1,606 vehicles carrying 4,106 people.
“It’s in our bylaw that everybody’s searched,” said Folster’s partner Fred Keam, “and we’re trying to enforce that bylaw.”
The guards are equipped with handcuffs, pepper spray and batons. They are also in radio contact with the nearest RCMP detachment “in case something major happens.”
The checkpoint opened in the midst of band elections last month. Some in the community of about 6,000 say it cost long-time chief Ron Evans his job.
“It was brought up before the vote,” said Norway House member Jeff Muskego. “Some people don’t like it.
“But the way I see it, this is very good for the community. Safety is Number 1.”
Newly elected Chief Larson Anderson admits he’s coming in blind and only learning about the $500,000 annual operating cost now. His new band council plans to give the checkstop a few months before deciding its fate but says he’s not a fan.
“My thoughts were it was a waste of money,” he said. “Our community has a lot of needs.”
The brown brick building is equipped with computer monitors and surveillance cameras that wouldn’t be out of place at a real border crossing.
Only, in this case, it’s approximately 450 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
(This new, $600,000 checkpoint opened in February at the main entrance to Norway House.)
Keam says they catalogue seizures before dumping booze at the side of the road and handing drugs over to the RCMP. He says they also keep a record of each vehicle and who was in it.
“We want to have a clean, safe community,” he said. “There’s a lot of dangers out there.”
And, some weapons.
Guards say it was an exciting day when they recovered a .357 magnum someone threw into the bush near the checkpoint.
“Since this checkstop’s opened I feel more secure at home,” added Muskego, a butcher at the community grocery store.
“I see violence is kind of dropping a little. And I see there’s not that much activity now at nights.
Dave Williamson, an instructor at the Norway House campus of the University College of the North, agrees.
“The alcohol is a concern largely because of the violence that’s associated with it,” he said after consenting to a search of his car.
“The drugs is a concern because of the gang activity that’s attached to it. This is a good starting point.”
(Illegal alcohol seized on the dry reserve of Norway House in northern Manitoba.)
Keam hopes the checkpoint succeeds despite the pushback.
“Some people get aggressive towards us,” added Keam. “And they tell us, ‘No, you can’t do that. You have no right doing this to us. You’re not real officers.’
“My response would be, ‘Well, everybody goes through it. It’s not just you.’”
The security team already has a couple of files open that may lead to alcohol-related criminal charges.
Keam says they’ve made 20 confiscations although he’s worried some drugs are still getting through.
“Lately we haven’t been finding drugs. I wish we had a canine (officer) to help us,” he said.
But Anderson says the checkpoint won’t stop contraband coming in via winter roads and summer waterways that surround the community on the bank of the Nelson River.
He wants the Manitoba government to pony up some of the operating expenses from liquor tax on suds sold just outside the community.
Keam says he grew up amid alcohol abuse in Norway House, which is home to about 6,000 people, and wants something different for his four-year-old son.
“It’s kind of tough, too, when you have members from your own community trying to come through here saying, ‘You can’t search me ‘cause I’m from home,’” he said.
“I say, ‘I may have to send you back or wait until the RCMP show up to do a search on you.’ Then most of them just get out and say. ‘Fine, do what you got to do.’”
But he says that’s why the checkpoint was put in place. To help curb the number of calls to police, which he says numbered well into the hundreds.
(Safety officer Fred Keam asks to search a vehicle driven by Dave Williamson.)
Muskego says he’s for anything that cuts down on cocaine and meth amphetamine sold in the community, along with related gang activity, guns and alcohol use.
But Anderson believes a trained squad targeting “known drug dealers” would be more effective than a checkstop. He says a five- to 10-member unit would enter band-owned housing and seal it until police arrive – an approach he says he is discussing with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
“We do want to stop the sale of alcohol illegally on reserve, as well as the drugs that are flowing into our community,” he said.
In the meantime, motorists who are not from Norway House but need to pass through can transport a small amount of alcohol for personal use by showing receipts.