Changing the pattern of law enforcement and systemic racism

I don’t blame my neighbours if they don’t understand what systemic racism means. When the head of the RCMP and her Alberta deputy don’t understand it and the premier of Quebec denies it exists, it makes it pretty difficult to start finger-wagging at everybody else. 

Systemic racism refers to the policies and practices that serve to exclude members of designated groups that are not white. Systemic racism can be broken down into institutional racism and structural racism.

The Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre defines institutional racism as “racial discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society”. The most obvious example of this is residential schools.

For those who don’t suffer from it, structural racism is a lot more difficult to see. Carol Tatar and Frances Henry, in Racial Profiling in Canada: Challenging the Myth of ‘a Few Bad Apples’, describe it as, “inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions.”

Last month, when media first reported the RCMP’s use of force in their March arrest of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, representatives of police forces across Canada—including the RCMP—spent the following days denying that Indigenous people and racial minorities suffer from unequal treatment at the hands of law enforcement.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told several media outlets that week “we don’t have systemic racism in the force”. 

The day after the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) announced it would investigate charges of police brutality and racism brought by Adam, Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki—RCMP’s top cop in Alberta—held a news conference in Edmonton.

“I don’t believe that racism is systemic through Canadian policing,” said Zablocki. “I don’t believe it’s systemic through policing in Alberta.”

That they made these denials against the backdrop of worldwide protests that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department was astoundingly tone-deaf. It also flew in the face of long-established facts.

Indigenous peoples account for a third of incarcerations in Canada, but make up less than five per cent of its population. In 2018, after Black Lives Matter Edmonton received Edmonton Police Service (EPS) carding data through a freedom of information request, CBC News reported that in 2016, Indigenous people were six times more likely than Caucasians to be stopped by Edmonton police. Black people were almost five times as likely as Caucasians to be stopped. Shockingly, Indigenous women were 10 times more likely to be checked than white women.

Also in 2018, the Ontario Human Rights Commission reported that, between 2013-2017, black people in Toronto were 20 times more likely to be shot by police than white people. A 2019 study of Montreal police’s internal filings suggested that, between 2014-2017, Indigenous and black people were four to five times more likely than Caucasians to be stopped and questioned by officers.

That high-ranking police officers would ignore thousands of voices telling them that they had experienced or witnessed racism at the hands of police was a perfect example of how institutional racism is propped up by—and even emboldened by—structural racism.

Both of these officers have since publicly walked back their comments, but I will never forget that Lucki testified at the Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women two years ago and offered an apology on behalf of the force. Given that the MMIW report she subsequently received on behalf of the RCMP was full of examples of systemic racism practices carried out by the force, her apology now rings hollow.

It was only after the public saw the video of the RCMP arrest of Adam—an arrest the RCMP had deemed “reasonable”—did the officers change the tone and content of their message.

As I finish writing this article, a news release from EPS landed in my inbox. On June 16, an officer was charged with assault stemming from an arrest that occurred around 115 Ave and 95 St on Aug. 27, 2019.

Police received video of the assault on a homeless Indigenous man the next day. When CBC approached EPS on June 8, 2020, they said the case was still under review. The woman who shared the video with the police and filed a complaint last August, Natasha Wright, told the CBC she posted the video on her Facebook page on June 5 after the large anti-racism rally at the legislature.

“I’ve been protesting for Indigenous rights, for human rights and for Black Lives Matter. And a lot of people are saying it doesn’t happen here, and I just shared it to kind of prove that point. That it kind of happens everywhere,” she told the CBC. It appears she may have caught someone’s attention: Const. Michael Partington has now been removed from duty without pay.

I don’t know where this will all end, but the demands for reform of our police and justice system are not going to go away until the police stop assaulting and killing unarmed Indigenous and black people. And from what I’ve seen these past few months, it’s a revolution that is most certainly going to be televised.