After Somali Canadian Abdirahman Abdi died after being beaten by Ottawa police in late July, the Ottawa Police Association said it was "inappropriate" to suggest race was a factor. Here we are two months later and an Ottawa sergeant is being investigated for making blatantly racist comments on Facebook. And yet, local officials still refuse to call it out.
In the latest example of what minority groups have long said is a deep-seeded racism in policing, Facebook comments from the account of Ottawa Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar claimed the death of Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook was her own doing.
Pootoogook was found dead in the Rideau River Sept. 19 and although foul play was initially ruled out, homicide detectives are now investigating due to "suspicious elements."
In response to an Ottawa Citizen article about the case, Hrnchiar wrote, "of course this has nothing to do with missing and murdered Aboriginal women…it's not a murder case….could be a suicide, accidental, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned who knows…..typically many Aboriginals have very short lifespans, talent or not."
He followed up with another comment that said, "Because much of the aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers, living in poor conditions etc…..they have to have the will to change, it's not society's fault."
Screenshots of the comments were published by APTN.
Ottawa police told VICE one of their officers is being investigated under a chief's complaint, but they did not confirm his name. He is currently still on the job. Both the Ottawa Police Association and a spokeswoman for Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declined to comment on the investigation.
Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt said it's unlikely Hrnchiar will be disciplined, considering that police accountability—through internal investigations or the Special Investigations Unit—is a joke.
"I'm highly dubious of the contention that anything will come of this from the very institution that is infected by this sort of systemic racism," he told VICE, noting the sergeant may receive some kind of superficial action, like a reassignment of duties.
"Power should exist to immediately stop paying these officers until the investigation is complete and a mechanism should be in place to re-examine every case this sergeant has been involved with that involves [minority] groups."
Spratt was highly critical of Mayor Watson for not speaking out on this issue. Watson was also criticized for his silence in the aftermath of Abdi's death—which revealed via video footage that he'd been laying on the sidewalk bleeding as police stood around.
"Any lack of comment and condemnation on this case demonstrates extreme cowardice on the mayor's part," Spratt said, and it should raise questions as to the mayor's relationship with police.
"You do not need to have an official inquiry to call this officer a racist and a stain on the badge and the community he is sworn to serve and protect."
Lorelei Williams, whose cousin Tanya Holyk was murdered by Robert Pickton and whose aunt has been missing since 1978, said the comments, while horrific, aren't surprising.
Police were racist in their handling of both her relative's cases, she said. When the family tried to file a missing person's report about Holyk, a Vancouver police clerk said she "is probably down in Mexico partying."
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has admitted there are racists in his police force and that has inflamed the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
"They need to change their views of our people, our women," said Williams, who works in the Vancouver Aboriginal Policing Community Centre, which fosters relationships between marginalized communities and police. "They're quick to label them as sex workers, drug addicts, runaways and drunks."
Williams said police should undergo cultural sensitivity training. She's concerned that the upcoming inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls lacks the teeth to hold cops accountable for how they investigate cases involving Indigenous people.
"There's so many of them across this country that are messing up all these cases and they're doing it to our women too. They're the ones who are being violent toward our women."
Spratt said the Ottawa incident exposes a tunnel vision that racist cops have when it comes to dealing with these cases. Had Pootoogook been a white, middle class woman, police likely would have thrown the full weight of their investigative powers behind the case from the start instead of ruling out foul play.
"This lays bare the problems with our state's police forces…and it makes clear what insiders have known and what members of those affected groups have known deep in themselves for a long time."
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