AMMSA Review of Racialized Policing

Racialized Policing
Aboriginal People’s Encounters with the Police

By Elizabeth Comack  

The most disturbing aspect of Elizabeth Comack’s Racialized Policing: Aboriginal People’s Encounters with the Police is not the first-hand experiences it relates in the pages, but the stories it mirrors from today’s headlines.

Take for example a recent case in Ontario which has pushed a coalition of First Nations led by Nishnawbe Aski Nation to file a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. The coalition claims that an internal email, written by a Thunder Bay Police Services detective and mistakenly released publicly, is an indication of the lack of respect Aboriginal people face. That email was entitled “Fresh Breath Killer Captured” and referred to a murder investigation that involved a First Nations victim and the arrest of a Thunder Bay man for second-degree murder. NAN pushed for an investigation by the police service. While the police service agreed to investigate, both the chief and the mayor of Thunder Bay (who happens to serve on the police commission and is a former police officer) claimed there was no racism involved. Not expecting a fair inquiry by the police, the First Nations coalition took its concerns to the Human Rights Tribunal.

This sort of incident is exactly what Comack talks about, making the distinction between racism and racialized policing. Says Comack, “While racial profiling and individual racism are significant issues and must receive attention, we need to broaden our gaze to include the ways in which race and racism play out in institutional practices and systemic processes.” This wider picture is what Comack refers to as “racialized policing.”

There is no lack of incidents for her to choose from when making her point. And these cases are not focused in a single province or one region of the country, but right across Canada.

Ontario Provincial Police shot and killed unarmed protester Dudley George during a 1995 standoff with Aboriginal people in Ipperwash Provincial Park. In Winnipeg, there were the shooting deaths by the police of JJ Harper (1998) and 18-year-old Matthew Dumas (2005). In Saskatoon spanning from 1990 to 2000 there is the infamous Starlight tours, in which Aboriginal people were taken from the downtown area and dropped on the outskirts of the city. Such treatment resulted in the deaths of Neil Stonechild (1990) Rodney Nastius (2000) and Lawrence Wegner (2000).

In Comack’s examination of the system, she also looks at why Aboriginal people sometimes react the way they do to police or figures of authority. Many don’t have the expectation of fair treatment, whether that’s based on present occurrences or having grown up with family who were part of the residential school system. After all, it was police who accompanied the priest or school master to the homes to take away the children. The roots of distrust are deep and there is no clear indication that there are reasons for that distrust to change.

Comack also examines the inquiries called as a result of some of the questionable deaths of Aboriginal people. These are as disturbing - if not more so - than the actual incidents. They are more disturbing because there is always the belief that an inquiry starts from a place of wanting answers and will end in a place of getting those answers. However, in a system where the police department investigates the actions of its own police officers, often times the officer is not found culpable or receives a light reprimand. It is no wonder NAN and the other First Nations in the Thunder Bay situation are pushing for an outside inquiry. It is the wider commissions that seem to get results.

Comack is clear in presenting her work that it is not about police bashing but about examining the system.

Comack raises the issues, examines them carefully, and leaves disquieting truths.

And those truths are upheld in today’s news.

— Shari Nanine on the AMMSA website, January 2013

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