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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Reproducing Order

The policing of Aboriginal peoples

Indigenous Politics

In its interim Report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TR C) noted that “Canadians have been denied a full and proper education as to the nature of Aboriginal societies. They have not been well informed about the nature of the relationship that was established initially between Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal peoples and the way that relationship has been shaped over time by colonialism and racism.” The TR C has been focused on informing Canadians about the troubled legacy of residential schools. But another area of concern is Aboriginal–police relations.

Colonialism Past: The North West Mounted Police

My own schooling exemplified the denial of a “full and proper education” referred to by the TR C. My schoolbook, Pages from Canada’s Story, told me that officers of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) were “messengers of law and order” known as “Redcoats.” The text explains: “The matter of uniforms was given special consideration. Someone who knew of the Indian’s love of colour must have had a voice in the choice of the bright scarlet coat which … stood, in the eyes of the Indians, for order and justice.”

The book emphasizes the supposedly benevolent role played by the force. Commenting on their arrival at Fort Whoop-Up in 1874, the text quotes the Blackfoot chief as saying that the Redcoats “have protected us as the feathers protect the birds from the frosts of winter.” It goes on: “‘Before you came,’ said old Chief Crowfoot to Colonel McLeod, ‘the Indian crept along. Now he is not afraid to walk erect.’” The impression left on young minds was that the NWMP were a godsend to Aboriginal peoples.

In truth, the role of the force was to ensure the submission of Aboriginal peoples to colonial rule. The NWMP had powers that were unprecedented in the history of police forces to implement the government’s colonial policies. As the Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI) stated in 1991: “Whenever an Indian agent felt the need for assistance in enforcing government policy regarding Indian people, he called upon the Mounted Police. Indian children who ran away from residential schools were sought and returned by NWMP officers.”

The NWMP played a crucial role in the management and containment of Aboriginal peoples. At its core, this policing involved the “reproduction of order” — an order founded on colonialism and racism. Just as the impact of residential schools continues into the present, so too does this form of policing.

Colonialism Present: Policing Inner-City Communities

Colonialism has not disappeared; it has just taken on new forms. Social exclusion, violence, alcohol use, and being tangled in the net of the criminal justice system dominate the lives of too many Aboriginal people. Police are tasked with reproducing order within this colonial context.

In Winnipeg, policing is concentrated in the inner city, where poverty is prevalent and many Aboriginal people reside. These communities are reputed to be “disorderly spaces” proliferated by crime, violence, the drug and sex trades, and street gangs. Given that these troubles are the product of a colonial history and larger global forces, the police are confronted with an insurmountable task: to manage and contain the “disorder” so that the ranks of society are preserved. Compounding the situation is the manner in which Winnipeg police have responded.

Just as the AJI commissioners concluded two decades ago, reports of Aboriginal people about their experiences with police document “a problem of considerable magnitude.” When interviewed, Aboriginal men report being regularly stopped by the police because they “fit the description.” One 20-year-old man I interviewed said that he is stopped by police “once a week, guaranteed. I can’t even count the number of times where I’ve been stopped just for walking down the street wearing, like, all black or something.”

While Aboriginal men are assumed by police to be involved in the drug trade or a street gang, Aboriginal women are assumed to be involved in the street sex trade. As one commented, “They see a girl on a strip where prostitutes happen to roam, they automatically stereotype and think that every girl out there is doing the same thing.” Racialized frames that cast Aboriginal people as the “usual suspects” shape their interactions with police.

The result is troublesome police practices. Beatings and banishment from certain areas of the city figure prominently in Aboriginal people’s reports. Revelations emerged in Saskatoon following the freezing deaths of three Aboriginal men and the experience of Darrel Night about the issue of “Starlight Tours.” Aboriginal people report that the same practice occurs in Winnipeg. Not surprisingly, mistrust and animosity flow from such treatment.

Denial of a Fundamental Problem

Racism pervades the practice of policing in Canada in complicated ways. Although government-sponsored commissions have named it many times, efforts to address this fundamental problem are typically met with denials that it even exists.

Instead, mainstream society seems content to assign the job of ensuring its safety and security to the police. In the current neoliberal climate, calls to “get tough” on crime carry the promise of a quick solution. Implicit in the public support for these strategies is the assumption that they will be directed at “them” and not “us.” So if police require enhanced powers to arrest, detain or otherwise control the “criminalized,” then so be it. If policing leads to more aggressive tactics to manage welfare recipients, street gang members, or other “troublesome” members of society, then so be it. If these strategies extend to include whole communities of Aboriginal people, then so be it. Clearly, the order that the police are reproducing privileges certain racialized groups over others.

Expecting that police will do this “dirty work” enables the continued denial of racism and absolves the rest of us from social responsibility. Denial comes at considerable cost. As Joyce Green notes, “While racism is most violently experienced by Aboriginal people, it also maims the humanity and civility of those who perpetuate it, deny it or ignore it.”

The issue is not simply about how the police behave, however problematic that may be. Rather, the issue is much broader. It has to do with how racism is embedded in everyday experiences and institutional practices and implicated in our society’s prevailing patterns of marginalization.

One starting point, then, is to heed the call of the TR C: to become well informed about the nature of the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples — and the ways it has been shaped by colonialism and racism.

This article appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (Labour and Austerity).

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