The ongoing debate about whether racism exists in the RCMP is a distraction from the real life impact that racialized violence has on Indigenous peoples everyday. Racism, sexism and corruption exist in the RCMP, and have so for many decades. Those facts are not disputable. The numerous investigations, commissions, inquiries, individual civil actions, class action lawsuits, and horrifying statistics leave no doubt that the RCMP engage in regular acts of racial profiling, harassment, over-arrests, brutality, sexualized violence and killings of Indigenous peoples at grossly disproportionate rates. They also commit these same acts of racialized violence against our Black brothers and sisters. What makes matters worse is that the RCMP do so with a high degree of impunity.
If Indigenous peoples are to be safe in their own territories, we need immediate, radical and sweeping changes in the laws, policies and governance of law enforcement in Canada; not the weak recommendations that dance around the edges of the status quo. For years, when confronted with racialized violence against Indigenous peoples by police, investigators and police spokespeople have recommended things like cultural awareness or cultural sensitivity training as if the problem was cultural difference. But the problem has never been about Indigenous culture. The problem has always been about racist, violent and corrupt police culture.
The last few weeks of protests all over Canada and the United States have been about pushing back against the daily, lived experiences and traumas inflicted upon Black and Indigenous peoples by racist police forces. Thousands of families have been forever impacted by the over-incarceration of Black and Indigenous mothers, fathers and children. Thousands of Black and Indigenous lives have been lost through unprovoked police violence. Thousands of Indigenous women and girls have been abused, exploited, disappeared, and murdered with little help from the police. In fact, police officers are frequently the perpetrators of sexualized violence against Indigenous women and girls.
CBC’s Deadly Force investigation found that during a 17-year period, despite being only three to four percent of the population, Indigenous peoples represented 16 percent of those killed by police. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the statistics jump to 55 and 63 percent, respectively. In Quebec, Indigenous peoples are four times more likely to be killed by police than white people and 10 times more likely in Nova Scotia. The Globe and Mail also found that over a 10-year period, more than 36 percent of RCMP killings involved Indigenous peoples. Experts warn that since the RCMP does not collect race-based data, that this number is likely much higher. A 2013 Human Rights Watch report on the RCMP in northern British Columbia documented many reports of physical and sexual assaults by RCMP officers against Indigenous women and girls. Similar accounts are common across the country, but we still do not have access to police discipline files to understand the full extent of the problem.
We don’t need to be experts to read the media headlines over just the last few months, and see that RCMP are under investigation in Nunavut for having shot three people, two of whom died, as well as being sued in a class action for years of harm to Indigenous peoples. The police are also under investigation in New Brunswick for having shot and killed two Indigenous people in the span of a week—one of which was by the RCMP. The Alberta RCMP are also being investigated for the brutal beating of an unarmed First Nation Chief and the Yellowknife RCMP are currently under investigation for another brutal beating of an unarmed Dene man. Similarly, the RCMP in British Columbia are being sued for $600 million in a class action suit for their gross failures in relation to murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. That doesn’t include all the RCMP officers from across the country being charged with sexual assaults.
Yet, despite this national public safety crisis of racist and violent policing, all levels of government in Canada have refused to hold the RCMP and other police forces to account. We do not even know the full scope of the crisis because the majority of the information is kept from the public. Despite decades of calls for policing reforms, and countless empty promises made by RCMP commissioners and government officials to act on the recommendations of so many inquiries, they have failed to do so and Indigenous peoples pay the price with their lives. The police are neither willing nor capable of reforming their racist police cultures. No one has time for “important first steps” or “best efforts” anymore. While many Canadians are outraged by the reports, photos and videos of RCMP brutality against Indigenous peoples, and are calling for change, the RCMP simply cannot bring itself to admit that there is a problem.
When confronted with weeks of protests, bad publicity and a video of RCMP officers beating an unarmed Chief Allan Adam, RCMP Deputy Commissioner and Commanding Officer for Alberta Curtis Zablocki’s first response was to deny there is racism in policing in Canada or Alberta. This was the same sentiment echoed by RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki who said that systemic racism does not exist in the RCMP, but that there might be some unconscious bias in some of its members who will be held to account. Both Zablocki and Lucki tried to walk back their statements, only after calls were made for their resignations. Not surprisingly, their revised positions are not substantively different from their original statements.
Lucki’s original statement admitted to unconscious bias but not targeted racialized violence in the RCMP, and her second statement admitted to systemic racism but only in the sense of institutional structures that may create unintended barriers. She ended by saying that the RCMP will not tolerate those whose actions are not in line with the RCMP’s core values–but that is exactly the problem. The RCMP’s core values have been grounded in racism and violence against Indigenous peoples since its inception. The RCMP’s core values of racism is what allow them time and time again to determine that their officers’ use of force was justified in brutalizing or killing Indigenous peoples. It is their immovable culture of racism, sexism, corruption and violence that explains why they have come to be known as a “Royal Canadian disgrace”.
Making small, incremental reforms that are considered safe or non-controversial have not worked. The oft-cited recommendation for cultural awareness or cultural sensitivity training locates the problem in Indigenous culture versus racist police culture. Racial profiling, brutality, sexualized violence and killings are against the law–regardless of whether the RCMP understand our Mi’kmaw, Haida or Dene cultures or not. We are not talking about unconscious bias, unintended barriers or lack of knowledge about cultures. We are talking about conscious and intentional racial profiling, targeting, harassment, brutality, sexualized violence and killings of Indigenous peoples and Black people at grossly disproportionate rates than white people. Making excuses, like the popular myth of a few bad apples, is not only factually inaccurate, it is dangerous. Justice inquiries have long showed that racism in policing is widespread, violent and often lethal.
In 2017, the Auditor General’s report on the many lawsuits against the RCMP found that the RCMP is more concerned about protecting its image rather than dealing with abusers in the force. The AG also noted that no one had been dismissed for unacceptable behaviour despite the 85 civil action claims against the RCMP. Even the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP (CRCC) has been plagued by its own harassment allegations. But even if it was functioning properly, The Hill Times revealed that the CRCC hasn’t posted any reports on its website since 2017 and the vast majority of complaints against the RCMP are never made public.
We are kept in the dark about problems within the RCMP, not unlike the special investigatory or oversight bodies for other police forces where few, if any, are ever convicted of crimes. In Manitoba’s Independent Investigation Unit, there have been less than a handful of charges laid. In Toronto’s Special Investigations Unit, less than half a percent of cases result in a police officer being convicted. Quebec’s Bureau des Enquêtes Indépendantes has a perfectly shameful record—no police officer ever being criminally convicted. Police policing police doesn’t work, nor do semi-independent oversight bodies often staffed with former police officers or those who work closely with the police. This is especially the case given that these bodies often lack the power to compel the police to testify or share their files. The recent RCMP killings of Indigenous people in New Brunswick are set to be reviewed by Quebec’s police oversight. Suffice it to say, this is not a good sign.
The only way we are ever going to stop RCMP racism and brutality against Indigenous peoples is to declassify, deconstruct and defund the institution itself. Whether or not the RCMP is to exist in the future, we have to do the important work of holding it to account for all of its abuses to date, which requires declassifying its files. That means we need to open the books on RCMP police discipline files, complaint files and investigations, photos, videos, and evidence, as well as all statistical data and information about all civilian and internal lawsuits settled by the RCMP (with associated privacy protections for victims). Only once we declassify this information can we start to hold RCMP officers to account. It is not like we haven’t been trying to access this information. Many times, were it not for Indigenous and Black advocates, human rights experts and the media’s access to information requests and investigations, we would not have access to the limited statistics that we do. There have also been numerous recommendations from the United Nations human rights treaty bodies for both standardized race and sex-based disaggregated data collection and access to information from police and governments generally.
It is only with this declassified information that we can hope to start the process of deconstructing the racist, sexist and violent culture of the RCMP. Even with this information, it will not be an easy task given the Blue Wall of Silence within the RCMP and its internal levels of corruption. The RCMP’s own investigations found hundreds of officers guilty of corruption and specifically perjury, falsifying evidence and interfering with judicial processes. That is why sweeping legislative amendments are required to compel officer testimony and access to all evidence, including videos, as well as the legal authority to suspend or terminate officers without pay, pensions, contracts or rehires. These legislative amendments would also help overcome the powerful barrier of police unions in other forces. A powerful tool for deconstructing the RCMP is to implement zero tolerance laws in relation to racial profiling, harassment, bullying, excessive or gratuitous force, and the sexual abuse, assault and exploitation of Indigenous peoples. A zero tolerance policy like this would go a long way towards helping eradicate RCMP killings of Indigenous peoples.
In addition to opening up the RCMP books and cleaning house, a strategic review of the RCMP, together with defunding of the organization is essential. It is long past time that we demilitarized the RCMP with their expensive tanks, SWAT teams and military style weapons. Canada has a military—it doesn’t need an additional, publicly-funded federal military that continues the violent colonization project against Indigenous peoples. Canada’s ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples is the direct root cause of our current impoverished socio-economic conditions, inter-generational trauma and pre-mature deaths. The RCMP has been a central feature in this genocide, imprisoning and killing us at increasing rates. We need to think about RCMP funding being diverted to First Nation peacekeepers on and off-reserve and Inuit and Métis—specific community supports, in addition to addressing the chronic underfunding of essential social programs and services that result in the criminalization of Indigenous peoples for trying to navigate state-enforced poverty.
Every Indigenous and Black resistance movement has brought us to this point in time. Police forces all over Canada and the United States have been rioting in the streets, engaging in acts of vandalism, unprovoked violence, arresting and assaulting journalists and continued racialized brutality and killings. They are literally showing the world why so many of us have called for defunding of the police. Racialized violence is so ingrained in these institutions that they are not afraid to do it out in the open. If we don’t use this moment to demand the radical changes that are needed, then the RCMP, like many other police forces, will dig in and we may never get them out.
While these protests have propelled police racism and brutality into the media, and politicians have scrambled to say the right things, we still have a significant hill to climb. The prime minister has a history of making flowery speeches and promises he doesn’t keep. What’s more, he is flanked on one side by an RCMP commissioner who hasn’t acknowledged the problem, and on the other by a Minister of Public Safety, Bill Blair, who also served as the chief of Toronto Police during the G20 protests which saw mass violations of civil rights, illegal detentions and excessive use of force. Under Blair’s watch, Toronto Police engaged in shooting Black and Indigenous peoples at disproportionate rates, racial profiling, carding, sexual assaults, and other criminal acts. Blair has also failed to take substantive action on the increasing incarceration rates of Indigenous peoples or the issue or murdered and missing Indigenous women.
Governments won’t simply give us what we want—we must force the change we need. It is going to take all of us working together to keep up the pressure and not stop until we see the radical transformation that is required. Anything less will result in continued police racism and brutality and the loss of more Black and Indigenous lives.
Justice for Rodney Levi, Chantal Moore, Regis Korchinski Paquet, Everett Patrick, Eisha Hudson, Stewart Kevin Andrews James Collins, as well as George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Andrew Loku D’Andre Campbell, Jermaine Carby and the thousands of other Black and Indigenous peoples harassed, brutalized, sexually assaulted or killed by RCMP.
Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She is a longtime CD columnist, and has been a practicing lawyer for 20 years. Currently, Pam is a Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.