Disproportionate policing in Canada

Canadian children are taught that whereas America is a ‘melting pot’, Canada is a ‘salad bowl’ – that is, instead of uniting everyone under a single identity, Canada wants to emphasise respecting diversity. In the 2006 census only 18% identified themselves solely as Canadian. This is partly because the interactions between European colonisers and the original inhabitants were largely peaceful, though not without some injustices. Aboriginals only gained the vote in 1960, and even until 1951 the legal definition of a person was “an individual other than an Indian”. Today Canada is praised for its progressive policies, but some argue that racism in Canada is not being eliminated, but is rather becoming more covert.

First Nations is the Canadian name for the various Aboriginal peoples, and the Métis are a distinct ethnic group with both First Nation and European heritage. In a survey in the city of Regina, both of these groups were far more likely to express distrust in the police than other groups. Two-thirds of First Nation and Métis respondents said they were the victims of crime, compared to 27% from everyone who took the survey.

After going through the responses to a survey in Winnipeg, a team identified these recurring themes:  “the lack of police services to the Aboriginal community, the abusive treatment by police based on Aboriginal ancestry, the need for community-based policing, the systemic nature of racial bias in the Winnipeg police service, the perception by police and media that groups of members of racialized groups are gang members, and sexually abusive treatment of Aboriginal women by police.” One woman had even warned her nephew to never run for the bus, lest the police get the wrong impression.

In 2009, after an argument with some girls in a public place in Winnipeg, Stephanie Warren was taken to a police station where she was brutally beaten and called, among other things, a “stupid Indian”. She was released 48 hours later. In another case in Winnipeg, a man lost his toes to frostbite after police forced him to walk through the streets in the depths of winter barefoot.

John Joseph Harper was a leader in Winnipeg’s Aboriginal community. Late one night in March 1988, when looking for a man who had stolen a car and was described as ‘native’, Constable Robert Cross came across Harper walking home after a night of heavy drinking. Cross asked for ID, Harper said he didn’t have to and began to walk away. When Cross tried to stop him, a fight broke out. Cross alleges that Harper attempted to grab his revolver, and that he accidentally shot him in the chest. Harper died in hospital.

Cross said to a friend at some point afterwards: "Harper was the author of his own demise. The natives drink and they get in trouble. Blaming the police for their troubles is like an alcoholic blaming the liquor store for being open late."

After 3 years, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry concluded that “racial stereotyping motivated the conduct of Cross” and that “the evidence is clear that racism exists within the Winnipeg Police Department”, as the man and boy who had stolen the car were both called “fucking Indians”. There were even reports of racist remarks at the scene of the shooting, and of a racist joke circulating the Department in the days following the shooting. The Inquiry also discovered that Cross’s record of events had been rewritten at least once.

In 1971, on the outskirts of the Manitoba town of The Pas, Helen Osborne was sexually assaulted and murdered by Dwayne Johnston. It was 16 years before Johnston was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. The local police have been accused of not searching for evidence hard enough, and the local community has been accused of being reluctant to come forward with evidence. In other words, the long wait for justice has been blamed on racism in the town.

Over in Vancouver, Frank Paul, a First Nations man, was arrested for being drunk in a public place one December night in 1998. He was taken to the jail facility, but then taken out again and left in an alleyway. The next morning he was found in the same alleyway. The cause of death was hypothermia. One officer was suspended for two days and another for one day, but no charges of manslaughter have ever been made.

Elsewhere in British Columbia, Fred Quilt, a leader of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, was arrested for drunk driving in November 1971 by two Mounties. Two days later he died in hospital due to “complete severance of the small bowel”. Just before he died he admitted that the officers had jumped up and down on him. An all-white inquiry concluded that there was no police brutality, but a second, more representative inquiry concluded that “injury was caused by way of an unknown blunt force applied by an unknown object to his lower abdomen”, and that it happened around the time of the encounter with the police.

Aboriginals are not the only people who are often victims of disproportionate policing. Police in Toronto are encouraged to stop, question and document citizens. Analysis of Toronto police data from 2008 to 2011 shows that “the number of young black and brown males aged 15 to 24 documented in each of the city’s 72 patrol zones is greater than the actual number of young men of colour living in those areas.” This strongly suggests that the police are very keen to monitor ethnic minorities.

Recent immigrants who live in Winnipeg aren’t exactly welcomed by the police either. A survey found a number of stories where police had raided a residence because they believe drugs or weapons are there, but after turning the place upside-down none are found and no apology is made. In one case the police raided a Muslim household. They pinned the 12-year old son to the ground, and did not allow the mother (who was indecent according to her faith) to get dressed. After a while the police realised that they had raided the wrong house. No apology was made. Stories of being beaten by the police were not uncommon, including reports of “being beaten with a phone book so no marks are left.”

Racist police officers are no doubt a minority in Canada. Roanna Hepburn, a First Nations rights campaigner and grandmother of Stephanie Warren, is convinced that the vast majority of police officers have their heart in the right place. But it is clear from these stories that Canada has a lot of work to do before it can live up to its reputation as an egalitarian society.