Review of Racialized Policing in Labour/LeTravail

Racialized Policing
Aboriginal People’s Encounters with the Police

By Elizabeth Comack  

In her most recent book, Racialized Policing: Aboriginal People’s Encounters with the Police, Elizabeth Comack provides an examination of the various ways in which Indigenous people are treated, and mistreated, within Canada’s justice system. She focuses on cases of injustice, including first-hand accounts of Indigenous Peoples’ everyday experiences with the Winnipeg and Saskatoon police forces. A common theme is that Indigenous men are racially profiled by police officers as criminal suspects. The police regularly stop them because Indigenous men “fit the description” and are suspected of being in the drug trade or in a gang. Indigenous women, on the other hand, are often perceived as sex workers. (162) Comack extends her analysis of racial profiling further by examining what she refers to as “racialized policing.” According to Comack, the concept t of racialized policing broadens the focus of study to encompass the role of the police in the wider society, specifically as reproducers of order. (28) She notes that, while police have the job of keeping order in society, in doing so, they are assisting in the governance of race and racialization. Therefore, she asserts that policing becomes a racial project. (28) Comack’s book also contributes to the discussion of systemic racism and the “denial of race,” and cases of police violence are examined in-depth. In particular, the author draws our attention to the “Starlight tours.” This was a practice by which Saskatoon police took Aboriginal men to the outskirts of the town in the winter and left them there to freeze and die. (218) She points to the case of Matther Dumas, in which the judge found no evidence to support the claim that Dumas’s death was a result of racism. (13) However, Comack tells a different story – one which says that “the death of Dumas had everything to do with racism.” (13) Here we see the contrast between the discourse of the denial of racism and the everyday experiences of Indigenous people with police and within the justice system. There is a disconnect between Indigenous people’s experiences and the ways in which their cases are played out in the justice system. The cases of Dumas, John Joseph Harper, Helen Betty Osbourne, Neil Stonechild, Rodney Nastius, Lawrence Wegner, Darrel Knight, and countless others demonstrate that race, racism, and the criminalization of Indigenous peoples are dominant themes in the lives of Indigenous people in a colonially-imposed justice system. Comack argues that her work is not an attack on the police, but rather is a call to see a broader systemic issues in the treatment of Aboriginal people by the justice system. Her work compels us to look at the issue of policing from a broader viewpoint, going beyond individual police actions to see a wider and deeper structural problem – one that is institutionalized and deeply entrenched, and continues to marginalize Indigenous people. Comack’s work helps us to understand and make sense of the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples when trying to navigate the justice system within Canada, from dealing with the police to dealing with the courts. She provides a historical context to show that today’s relationship is deeply connected to the history of European colonization. That colonization is based, in turn, on the premise that Indigenous peoples are inferior, so resulting in a continuation of the denial of their very dignity as people. Comack’s book offers insights into the broader issue of institutionalized racism as it manifests itself in the Canadian context. She challenges us to go beyond seeing policing as merely the good guy / bad guy dichotomy and to examine systemic racism and discrimination in police forces as being rooted in colonialism, patriarchy, and hierarchy. Comack shows us that policing is far more complex than the familiar notion that “the police catch the bad guys.” Indeed, her work illustrates the need to look at European colonialism as not only a historical issue, but also a very contemporary issue. She provides an examination which explores the ways in which Indigenous are often negatively portrayed in the dominant media and within school contexts. She points to the correlation between the educational system, where Comack reinforces the fact that Indigenous people’s worldviews are often distorted and omitted, and the very justice system which she writes about. The reader is able to link residential schools, which were designed intentionally to assimilate Indigenous peoples into European cultures, and the justice system as a broader part of Canada’s colonial project as it relates to Indigenous people. Comack aids in understanding these connections by providing the historical context of Indigenous–white settler relations and by demonstrating the ways in which those relations have shaped and framed what is now known as the Canadian state. (88) An important part of Comack’s work is her analysis of the North West Mounted Police, which became part of today’s Royal Canadian Mountie Police (RCMP). She notes that the RCMP is depicted within the Canadian fabric as a national symbol, and that criticizing the RCMP is depicted within the Canadian fabric as a national symbol, and that criticizing the RCMP is itself considered to unpatriotic. (66) She reminds us that the North West Mounted Police played an instrumental role in carrying out the colonial project and the government’s attempt to legislate Indigenous people out of existence. (218) Ultimately, this work is about the Canadian government’s continuing marginalization of Indigenous people and the structural challenges in the way of Indigenous people achieving justice through Canada’s courts. Racialized policing and systemic racism in Canada’s courts continues to be pervasive. For example, on 3 August 2013, two brothers, 30-year old Lance Cutarm, and 41-year old Larron Cutarm, were shot by an RCMP officer at a traffic stop at Pigeon Lake, Alberta. Lance was killed while Larron was injured. Muriel Stanley Venne, chair of the Aboriginal Commission on Human Rights and Justice, stated that the shootings may be a reminder that discrimination against Aboriginal people is very much alive, while other Indigenous leaders assert that the police shooting of the two men may be racially motivated. Less than two weeks after those shootings, in mid-August 2013, an RCMP officer shot and killed a 52-year old man (identified only as a member of the Charland family) on the Cold Lake First Nations in Alberta. Comack’s book is accessible and easy to read, and is situated in the larger context of the history of systemic violence against Aboriginal people. It is a call for everyone to examine Canada’s unjust and inequitable justice system. The Indigenous people’s narratives which are included in Comack’s book show that injustices against Indigenous people are everyday occurrences. Thus, Comack’s work implicates not only the police as the cause of these injustices, but also the overall justice system. Comack calls on all of us to think deeply about our own role in a country where Indigenous people are often denied basic human rights and their inherent rights as Indigenous peoples.

— Erica Neeganagwedgin (Athabasca University), Labour/LeTravail

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