How inquests into police violence entrench the oppressive institutions of settler colonial society
An interview with feminist critical race scholar Sherene H. Razack
On January 28, the Independent Investigation Unit (IIU) of Manitoba announced that the Winnipeg Police officer who shot and killed 16-year-old Eishia Hudson in April 2020 would not be charged.
The IIU, headed up by former Crown prosecutor Zane Tessler and staffed by mostly former police officers, had forwarded the investigation to the Manitoba Prosecution Service (MPS), which had concluded “there is no factual or legal basis to lay any charges.”
As recently reported by Katie May and Ryan Thorpe of the Winnipeg Free Press, this process of the IIU referring an investigation to the MPS—Tessler’s former workplace—only for the MPS to conclude that charges should not be laid had happened 18 times by mid-2020.
Understandably, families of those killed or seriously harmed by police are pushing for other accountability measures beyond compromised police oversight bodies like the IIU, particularly via inquests and public inquiries. An inquest into Hudson’s death is expected to be called in the near future, and her family are calling for a provincial inquiry with support from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and both NDP and Liberal politicians.
Inquests are called by a province’s chief medical examiner when someone dies at the hands of police or other government institutions with the objective of analyzing the conditions that led to death—for example, the police killings of Andrew Loku or Sammy Yatim. Public inquiries, formerly known as Royal Commissions, are called by provincial or federal governments to provide policy recommendations. Famous inquiries in Canada include the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, and the Ipperwash Inquiry.
Yet the results of inquests and inquiries often end up excusing and entrenching oppressive institutions. Worse still, policymakers simply ignore their recommendations completely.
Canadian Dimension spoke with Sherene H. Razack, author of the 2015 book Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody, about the function of inquests and inquiries in a settler colonial society.
Razack is a Distinguished Professor and the Penny Kanner Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies in the Department of Gender Studies, UCLA. Her research and teaching focus on racial violence. She is the founder of the virtual research and teaching network Racial Violence Hub (RVHub).
A feminist critical race scholar, Razack has published six single-authored books and three edited and co-edited collections, as well as over eighty journal articles and book chapters. Her publications illustrate the thematic areas and anti-colonial, anti-racist feminist scholarship she pursues.
Canadian Dimension: When did inquests and inquiries first emerge?
Sherene H. Razack: It comes from law. It is the legal strategy of choice in British law and colonial law. We’ve had it as long as Canada has been a white settler colony. There have been inquests for 100 years saying the same thing.
CD: What is the ideal outcome of these processes? If everything worked as they were supposed to, what’s the intent behind them?
SHR: The intent behind them is part of the problem. They are clearly a mechanism that is intended to communicate what I call a colonial storyline, which is that when bad things happen to Indigenous people, they are to blame for it and we need to figure out ways to protect them and improve things. But this game of improvement is really all about Indigenous inabilities, Indigenous dysfunction, Indigenous alcoholism. It is not really about why they’re killed in custody. Or why policing has always entailed considerable violence against Indigenous peoples.
CD: Is it fair to say that these processes often don’t focus as much as they should on institutions like police and prisons?
SHR: They seem to have a kind of in-built mechanism to exonerate the state through a focus on what one British scholar called for the British context “speaking ill of the dead.” They focus so intently on protecting state actors that they never get to the structural and to state violence. And they particularly never get to any kind of story that involves racism and colonialism. Even when they get to a colonial story, it’s usually to argue that bad things happened at one time, in the distant past where Indigenous people were mysteriously harmed in colonialism, and now we know better and so we can improve. It’s never really about the system of settler colonialism and it’s never really about the other players in settler colonialism, which is the colonizers. As I write in my book, inquests and inquiries speak of a colonialism that has no colonizers in it.
CD: There have been many inquests and inquiries into the issues of state violence against Indigenous peoples over the years, resulting in thousands of recommendations. Yet it feels like so few of those recommendations have been implemented. I think of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of 1991 that had to be followed up with the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission because none of its recommendations were taken seriously. Why is that? Or how can the settler colonial state have this immense amount of information but still ignore it?
SHR: Again, it goes back to understanding the problem. If you think the problem is one of Indigenous dysfunction then it’s very hard to even pay attention to evidence that you receive in an inquiry or inquest that says exactly the opposite. Even with coroners and commissioners who are prepared to acknowledge racism it has been hard for their reports to offer an analysis of what is so clearly an extraordinary amount of racial violence.
For instance, in the report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry there are remarkable moments where Justice Hamilton and Justice Sinclair actually note the extraordinary racial violence in the town of The Pas, Manitoba. In their chapter on the murder of Helen Betty Osborne by white men, a murder about which the town kept silent for decades, the commissioners describe the “unimaginable fury” directed at Osborne by her killers, and equally unimaginable efforts of the town’s people to protect the killers. It seemed to me that they looked colonialism in the eye, if you like: they make comments about all the circumstances surrounding her death.
But then what? Words and analysis often fails us when we confront this extraordinary devaluation of Indigenous life. For 20 years people knew exactly how Helen Betty Osborne died and what race had to do with it and kept it a secret. What is our answer to that?
CD: Have there been attempts to improve the processes of inquests and inquiries in response to these failures? Or is it fair to conclude that these are not seen as failures by the state?
SHR: The state definitely has protected its storyline that Indigenous people are dying because of their own fault. And there is virtually no inquest or inquiry where Indigenous people and those who support them and are critical haven’t tried to insist otherwise. Indigenous people try all the time to record their truth in inquests and inquiries. It’s utterly stunning how much they keep trying with the mechanisms at hand. It’s really more a situation of our capacity as a society to hear them.
CD: Are there common themes that you’ve identified about the experience of families through these processes? Are there key takeaways of what it’s like to be for the families to be in the middle of this?
SHR: You ask a question about which we need to do more thinking, including me. If I would criticize my own scholarship, I would say that I’m so busy attending to what happens in the law that I don’t go down the road of trying to trace what is happening to families. But it is really clear that families are put through this process where there is very little room for their voices at all. Even when they speak, it just gets all swallowed up in this grander story.
Imagine what it is like for the 17-year-old daughter of an Indigenous woman who died in custody to be asked what her mother fed her, in order to make a case that the mother was really quite an incompetent and alcoholic person who only gave her children Kraft Dinner. Imagine what that is like for that 17-year-old. She is actually being asked to collaborate on evidence that her mother’s death was entirely defensible.
You try to put alternate stories on the record. But for the most part, there is great hostility to it. I can even tell you of my own experience, when people have tried to ask a coroner to admit me as an expert witness on racism. The response is usually “racism has nothing to do with it, we don’t need an expert on racism.” That’s very, very common.
CD: Options for those who have lost loved ones to police and carceral violence are so limited in terms of how they can seek justice in the present system. What alternatives might exist to this process?
SHR: I’m not sure if it’s an alternative but a necessary thing is a social movement against this kind of violence. Certainly, Indigenous people have tried collectively to speak about these issues, which is really where you have to go: you have to speak collectively about it. But you’ve certainly noticed the attempts to speak collectively about Black Lives Matter. Thousands on the streets saying Black Lives Matter, thousands saying this violence of policing has got to stop.
Black Lives Matter has been terrific in both countries in trying to bring attention to what happens to Black people in police custody. But can you imagine a similar set of demonstrations on Canadian streets over police treatment of Indigenous peoples? I don’t know if we’re at the level of a major political movement in Canada, although it certainly isn’t for lack of trying: Indigenous peoples have tried very hard.
CD: Is there anything you wanted to add or emphasize?
SHR: I want to say two things. I am very frequently asked whether I think an inquest or inquiry is going to do any good and would I recommend that they not happen. It’s a terrifying question. Who would be brave enough to say give it up? Certainly not me, because it’s one of the only options that there is. We can push and pull and poke at it and hope that the story of this tremendous violence against Indigenous people gets told, not as a story of their dysfunction but as a story of settler violence and state violence against Indigenous people. We have to keep doing all of that.
But I also want to think about something that is very much the question of the day, which is abolition. What does abolition mean in the context of the policing of Indigenous peoples? There’s a lot of thinking about what abolition means here in the United States in the context of Black and Indigenous peoples, but mainly the focus has been on anti-Black racism and violence. So what does abolition look like for Canada? I think that’s the question of the day and it entails all of us training ourselves to think about what that must look like.
There are a couple of things we already know. We already know that reform leads nowhere. We know there could be a thousand inquests and inquiries on how police should exercise force, what kind of training they should have: we even suggest they should have anti-racism training. We know where all of these things go. The cameras don’t change the picture. It would have seemed that they would have; for example, the killing of George Floyd here. But really, there is such a push to make this all into reform of something that cannot be reformed. Racial violence is so structurally supported.
What is the goal of policing? It’s the policing of Black and brown and Indigenous people. That’s what policing is. We really have to rethink at a fundamental level what policing in a white settler state is. The question for me at the end of the day is how do we all get on board with an abolitionist future? That’s where we need to be. And it’s going to take lots of steps. People say it’s impossible and we can’t do without policing. Well, we can’t really afford not to do this, because the deaths continue apace. They don’t stop. They have not stopped.
Eishia’s family is fundraising for legal costs associated with the upcoming inquest and potential public inquiry. Please donate to and share their GoFundMe and follow their struggle for justice on Twitter at @justice4eishia.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.