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A look at Yellowknife’s lesser-known police force

MCpl. Jeffrey Vig, left, stands in front of the Military Police vehicle alongside Capt. Gary Counsell outside the Evans Building Thursday. Brendan Burke/NNSL photo. June 27, 2019.

If you’re a Yellowknifer who often drives or walks around the city, you’ve likely spotted an eye-catching addition to the capital’s roadways in recent months.

MCpl. Jeffrey Vig, left, stands in front of the military police vehicle alongside Capt. Gary Counsell outside the Evans Building Thursday.
Brendan Burke/NNSL photo.

With a red and white paint job and “police” scrawled across its side, the hard-to-miss vehicle almost looks like it belongs to the RCMP’s fleet, but its federally-issued, non-polar bear shaped licence plates say otherwise.

So what is this vehicle all about? And what is it doing when you see it out on the road on your way to work?

The vehicles are driven by members of Canada’s military police – one of the largest police forces in the country.

Military police oversee the enforcement of laws on Canada Armed Forces (CAF) establishments across the country and throughout the world – including embassies abroad.

That includes enforcing laws and regulations at the Joint Task Force (North) headquarters in Yellowknife, one of six regional CAF task forces located strategically in key locations across the country.

Capt. Gary Counsell, Joint Task Force North Provost Marshal, is one of four military police officers in Yellowknife. Counsell is in charge of overseeing the policing duties of the three other members.

He was posted to Yellowknife from Toronto last year.

“I’ve had conversations with people here in Yellowknife since I got here at the end of July, and they really didn’t know military police were stationed here in Yellowknife,” he said.

Counsell chalks that up to the fact that the military police vehicle didn’t hit the streets of Yellowknife until November of last year, meaning the force wasn't as visible, save the presence of members who can often be seen walking downtown in their colourful fatigues.

Officers sporting a red beret have passed basic training, while those wearing green berets are still trainees.

According to Counsell, who wears multiple proverbial hats as the Force Protection Officer at JTFN as well as the Military Police Regiment Detachment Commander for Yellowknife, the bulk of the force’s day-to-day duties in Yellowknife can be broken down into a handful of mandated priorities: proactive policing; conducting investigations; and security support.

Proactive policing, said Counsell, means getting out and making themselves visible to military members.

“We have properties all throughout Yellowknife and we try to get out to them everyday, just to see what’s going on, talk to people and just let them know we’re there,” said Counsell.

He added that the proactive approach to policing also increases military police members' visibility for the general public.

The force, which works closely with Yellowknife and NWT RCMP, also fulfills certain security duties. For example, military police members recently offered support during the city’s D-Day parade, ensuring the safety and security of military personnel. Military Police also work with the city’s Municipal Enforcement Division (MED).

If Yellowknifers spot the military police vehicle with its lights flashing and sirens wailing, by and large, they’re dealing with activated intrusion alarms at military properties across the city.

Investigations typically involve “either military personnel, military vehicles, military property and equipment,” said Counsell.

Investigations by military police focus on low-level issues - such as a damaged military vehicle - but can "certainly be a lot more serious, too,” said Counsell.

“Depending on circumstances we look at it and say ‘are we going to handle it in the military justice system – which would be National Defence Act-related – or do we look at the civilian justice system, related to the Criminal Code,” said Counsell.

“But really what I’ve seen in my almost year up here has been that we’ve handled it through the military justice system,” he added.

While military police functions are generally limited to a military scope, the force does have the authority to step in “extreme circumstances,” when a civilian is facing the risk of bodily harm or death. That extends to impaired driving as well.

Military police members driving vehicles around town are equipped with a pistol, oleoresin capsicum (the active ingredient in “pepper spray) and an expandable baton. The force also intends to soon equip its vehicles with carbine rifles – like the ones carried inside RCMP vehicles.

“We’re kind of niche,” he said. “Of the 292 military in the North, there’s four of us. So we’re a very small piece of that, but I like to think we’re a valuable piece,” said Counsell.