A spate of disturbing police incidents across Canada has re-ignited calls for law enforcement reform, in a summer that saw Alberta police shoot an Aboriginal star from the reality TV show Mantracker, and Québec police under fire for the beating of an Innu man, captured on video.
Only days after the widely criticized Toronto police killing of 18-year-old Syrian-Canadian Sammy Yatim on an abandoned streetcar, Alberta police were forced to launch internal investigations into three separate incidents in the province.
Though Mantracker star Curtis Hallock survived his brush with the law, with gunshot injuries, Wetaskiwin RCMP shot dead one man from Pigeon Lake at a traffic stop and sent another to hospital. The incident came only a day after Mounties tasered another man, 27, in Leduc, Alta. who died in custody.
Though both deaths happened at roadside stops, the head of the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), which investigates policing incidents in the province involving serious injury or death, reassured the public.
“I don’t think, generally speaking, the public needs to be concerned about being stopped,” said Clifton Purvis at a news conference. “In fact, I think probably in Canada we’re one of the very few jurisdictions worldwide where your first reaction when you get pulled over by police isn’t fear. It’s ‘oh gosh, I got a ticket.’”
Like the videos that circulated following Yatim’s death, contradicting initial police stories, witnesses filmed two Québec police officers severely beating 24-year-old Innu Norbert Mestenapeo of Unamen Shipu.
Another, less-publicized incident in Oneida Nation of the Thames, Ont., saw police shoot a teenager they say fired on them with a .22 shotgun, putting the youth in critical condition.
Regional Chief Stan Beardy, with the Chiefs of Ontario, called for governments to work more closely with First Nations, and better fund Aboriginal community policing.
“We must address First Nations policing cooperatively and urgently,” Beardy said. “Lethal responses like the incident in Oneida Nation of the Thames will only continue if we cannot make First Nations policing a priority.”
The Assembly of First Nations’ justice spokesman, Alberta Regional Chief Cameron Alexis, spoke with Windspeaker about the longstanding call for change in Aboriginal-police relations.
He cited a litany of recent deaths, such as the 1995 killing of protester Dudley George in Ontario’s Ipperwash Provincial Park, teenager Matthew Dumas in Winnipeg’s North End in 2005, and Vancouver’s Frank Paul, who died of hypothermia in 1995 after being dropped in an alley by police.
“The use of lethal force needs to be looked at seriously,” reiterated Alexis. “My goodness, situations like this really affect the whole of Aboriginal-police relations.
“It was very painful to hear about the two shootings that happened in Alberta... Programs need to be put in place to de-escalate these things, hopefully before they even happen. From a broader perspective, First Nations communities should have, through full consultation, discussions about a police service of their own choice that is culturally sensitive.”
In the wake of the so-called Québec’s Oka Crisis at Kanesatake, Alexis recalled how the RCMP began to examine Aboriginal reforms in the early 1990s after the release of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). But like almost the entirety of RCAP’s recommendations, he said little change resulted over the decades since.
“But since that time, things have not evolved to where they should be,” he said. “My uncle always says ... ‘We’ve been studied to death! When are we actually going to get started?’
“Painfully, I certainly don’t like what I’m seeing. First Nations need to get involved in all facets of justice in order for us to properly address these kinds of issues. It’s not going to totally stop everything, ‘cause we’re not in a perfect world, but at the same time if we’re afforded our opportunities, we can make some changes that help our people.”
Among his recommendations, Alexis suggested an RCMP oversight body that would review any deadly incident involving Aboriginal people, on top of other investigatory mechanisms already in place. He also suggested increased funding for independent First Nation policing services for communities who choose them. But any change must address the “full spectrum” of justice, including courts and corrections.
The RCMP in particular has been criticized for its sluggishness in incorporating Indigenous people into its upper ranks. But on Aug. 21, the force made history by appointing its first-ever Aboriginal woman to lead one of its divisions.
Chief-Supt. Brenda Butterworth-Carr took the helm of Saskatchewan RCMP after serving on the force since 1987 in four provinces – B.C., the Yukon, Ontario and Saskatchewan. She also served as director general of the RCMP’s national aboriginal policing and crime prevention services.