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Inside the Course Canadian Officers Are Taking to Improve Their Relationship with First Nations

But can a two-day course really improve decades of abuse and mistrust?

A meeting between the RCMP and the Liard Aboriginal Women's Society and other local organizations. Photo provided by LAWS

Constable Julia Fox arrived in Watson Lake, in southern Yukon, in February of 2011. That month, the temperature dipped below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind howled for two days straight at more than 25 miles per hour.

Fox was one of several new officers to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's (Canada's federal police force, also known as RCMP) Watson Lake detachment within a span of months. The detachment, which has fewer than a dozen members, is responsible for policing Lower Post, an Indigenous community in northern British Columbia and the location of one of the most notorious Indian Residential Schools. On this last point, Fox arrived unaware.


There was no warm welcome, she says. In 2009, two local constables had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman in the area. About a year before Fox arrived, the Yukon Supreme Court found the men not guilty.

"A completely different world," says Fox, recalling her first impressions. "I'm used to people not liking me for what I do for a living… but there was all this automatic tension between police and residents."

It wasn't until the spring of 2011, that she really learned why. Fox and other officers were sent to a Whitehorse hotel for a new two-day training course designed to help officers do their jobs with compassion and care for the Indigenous communities they serve (the RCMP estimates it polices more than 40 percent of Indigenous people living in Canada, compared to roughly 20 percent of the rest of Canada's population).

The course's bland title, "Yukon First Nations Information Session," belies its significance. At a time when education is being touted as key to reconciliation and helping bridge the divides between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada, the Yukon course is notable for the balance it strikes. It corrects misconceptions and it strips away false assumptions, but it does not foster a sense of guilt.

The RCMP detachment in Whitehorse, Yukon. Photo by Jane Gerster

In December 2010, just two months before Fox arrived in the north, the Task Force on Acutely Intoxicated Persons at Risk released its final report. They had been tasked with investigating two separate instances in which an intoxicated person died while in care, the first in an RCMP cell and the second in a local detox facility. Their inquiry: "Were these two episodes in fact only coincidental or do systemic weaknesses exist, which might be changed to prevent such occurrences in the future?"


The first recommendation from the task force's final report was that frontline workers be trained in "First Nations' content and cross cultural awareness" to ensure compassionate and non-judgmental care. The report identified the training program developed with the Northern Institute of Social Justice at Yukon College as a good option.

Now, all new RCMP officers arriving in the territory take that training, although how soon upon arrival hinges on the college's schedule. Unlike the nationally mandated Indigenous awareness course that officers must take within their first two years, which is done online, officers must attend the course in the Yukon in person.

And taking two full days to break down preconceived notions, while building a safe space to address—and correct—racist perceptions, is where the college's trainers have excelled.

A handout included in the course

In September 2015, nine people walked into a bright classroom at Yukon College in Whitehorse for a one-day version of the course taken by Yukon officers like Fox. Some were Yukon born and raised; others newly arrived. They scrawled their names on white card stock with Sharpies and filled Styrofoam cups with coffee.

They weren't officers or correction facility workers. Like Fox, they were there to learn. Unlike Fox, they had come by choice.

It seemed at first like a condensed history class, as the instructors raced through time:

1763—The Royal Proclamation of 1763 recognized aboriginal title and made clear that only the Crown may acquire First Nations land, and then only through treaty.


1867—Canada is born. That same year, the Indian Act is introduced and Status Indians essentially become wards of the Crown.

1884—The federal government introduces anti-potlatch laws under the Indian Act, making all First Nations gatherings potentially illegal (they did not clearly define potlatch).

1891—The first residential school opens in the Yukon.

These may seem like nothing more than a series of historical moments you might memorize when cramming for an exam. But for Fox, who'd been an officer for about five years by the time she took the Yukon course, it was key to understanding the tension in Watson Lake. It was, she explained, the first time she realized that RCMP officers had forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes and corralled them in the residential schools where many children were abused emotionally and physically—some sexually.

But even upon learning this, Fox recalled that her instructors did not pass judgment on the officers present. This is not about how police officers themselves are inherently bad, she remembered them saying, it's about bridging the gap.

"Right off the bat, it was very accepting," she said. She remembers sitting in that hotel room and thinking how, for the damaged relationship between her Watson Lake colleagues and their community, there was "not just an easy fix."

Davida Wood, left, and Cassandra Ivany, right, two of the course instructors. Photo by Jane Gerster

In that September classroom, there was an early indication that what is learned in schools across the country is often either forgotten or incomplete. It happens when someone asks: "So, Indian agents are not actually First Nations?"


No, Indian agents were government-appointed officials who worked toward the goal of assimilation. Their jobs included enforcing anti-potlatch laws and forcing children into residential schools.

"That's where a lot of the issues arise from: the place of not knowing," said Davida Wood, a member of the Teslin Tlingit First Nation and one of two instructors. "We see ourselves as the nice guys, the peacekeepers," she said, "and we still see our history like that."

Wood's co-instructor is Cassandra Ivany. For some students, her presence is initially a surprise: after all, Ivany is white and hails from Newfoundland. But the combination of a First Nations instructor with a non-First Nations instructor is where the Northern Institute of Social Justice has found its balance—this combination is central, according to Wood and Ivany, to creating an environment where people can ask questions that they worry might reveal racist assumptions. And the two instructors excel at putting students at ease as they navigate from ignorance to awareness.

"What we've found," said Wood, "is that it almost makes it seem OK for the other people to be like, 'I thought that too.' Or, 'I didn't know.'"

There are 14 First Nations in the Yukon, and each one has an advisor on Yukon College's committee on First Nations Initiatives. The course was designed in collaboration with them, and they review it annually.

What Ivany and Wood teach is based on what the Yukon's First Nations want taught: their history, their heritage and culture, their world views, their governance, their contemporary issues, and their residential school experiences. Running through all six topics can, at moments, feel like a single sad theme: racist stereotypes and the human rights violations that follow from those stereotypes.


"It's really difficult to change people's opinions of the idea that Aboriginal people have this Indian credit card that they use for all these free services that the rest of us can't access," said Ivany.

In class, the instructors circulate an information folder that highlights the similarities and differences between Yukon First Nations ("No," they often have to explain, "not all Indigenous people speak the same language") and summarizes certain sections of the Indian Act.

There's stunned surprise when Wood explains that the Canadian Human Rights Act was only applied to the Indian Act and to First Nations governments in 2011—just four years ago.

After revelations such as this, it was Ivany who reminded people why they need to listen: "It's not just First Nations history; it's Canadian history, and we all have to come to grips with it."

Later still, Wood explained Canada's general obliviousness.

"Unless something happens, you have no reason to know the background of it," she said. "First Nations people are often brought to light in the same way when we talk about some of the things in the Indian Act or when we talk about certain things with Status. Because that's all you know, you don't have any reason to question something different because that's just the way it works."

Yukon College in Whitehorse, where the trainers work. Photo by Jane Gerster

Fox has no doubt that the Yukon course helped make her a better officer. Above all, she values the Indigenous perspective she gained from the course. "There are so many different elements that come into play that shaped this person's life or certain communities' lives," she said, "to see that gave me more of an understanding."


This understanding manifests itself sometimes in small but significant ways. "If someone offers you a gift, traditionally for us, we can't accept gifts," she said, "but [now] it's seen differently." And although her job is "go, go, go," she's learned "it's better to sit and have coffee and tell stories and listen to their stories."

It's little cultural insights such as these that are key, according to Wood. So is knowing what might trigger a flashback to residential school trauma: the smell of bleach, or split pea and ham soup, or oatmeal, or a cologne that smells like a person's abuser. Wood recalled the story of a nurse who started going by her middle name after she was told that she shared her first name with another nurse who had abused residential school students decades earlier.

Fox explained that the course was just the beginning for her and other officers in Watson Lake, who began building bridges within their community where relations were strained.

Indeed, the RCMP's national office says lots of the education work being done with Indigenous people across the country happens at a detachment level. The force is also currently consulting with the National Aboriginal Policing Services to determine more definitively what training exists across the country and what gaps still exist.

And there are gaps. Ann Maje Raider, a local Kaska woman in Watson Lake and a member of LAWS—the Liard Aboriginal Women's Society—said that calling the situation "strained is putting it mildly."


Raider was among a small group of Kaska women who started LAWS in 1998 as a way to empower women and youth and ensure the wellbeing of their community. They delivered a healing program and established a camp to help elders learn about traditional medicine. She says the group's efforts are an attempt to reconnect with what was stolen. They work "always toward restoring dignity and building wellbeing."

It was LAWS, she says, that approached the RCMP's Watson Lake detachment about trying to find a way forward.

"People did not feel safe approaching them," Raider says, "and there were incidents where I would say, 'Well, you should call and talk to the RCMP' and they'd say, 'No'."

The first meeting was attended by Fox (who transferred to the RCMP's Whitehorse detachment in June 2014) and would eventually lead to a joint safety protocol. But the atmosphere at the time was tense, Raider recalls on a laugh, with "the RCMP on one side, arms folded, the women on the other side, arms folded."

But the meetings, like the Yukon course, were not about assigning guilt for historical wrongs. They were about finding a way forward, and in many respects, Raider says, they're succeeding.

Now, Raider says, the relationship is "more of an open door."

It's not perfect, but she sees RCMP officers engaging in community and youth work, not folding their arms over their chests at a table.

A photo of the meeting between RCMP and LAWS. Photo provided by LAWS

Back in the Yukon College classroom, Ivany concluded the course with a plea for understanding. If you a see a First Nations person drunk on the street, or you see a First Nations home in disrepair, think about how their lives may be affected by the trauma of residential school. Was their mother, like Wood's, forced to attend? Think how their decisions might be restricted by the Indian Act, how there was for Status Indians and First Nations governments, no recourse under the Canadian Human Rights Act until 2011.

"It is so easy to just make those assumptions, to talk about the lazy Indian or the drunk or the holes in the wall or this and that," Wood said, "without knowing any of these things it's absolutely easy to make those assumptions."

Teaching the Yukon course, she explained, has made her more accountable to her own nation. She sits on the Teslin Tlingit general council and on a few committees and boards. Together, Wood and Ivany teach about half a dozen sessions to RCMP officers and health and social workers each year.

They offer voluntary, public courses maybe twice a year. But as Ivany noted wryly: "The people we want to come here the most are the people who don't want to."

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