The Royal Canadian Mounted Police will find new ways to strengthen relations with Indigenous communities, the force's chief vowed on Tuesday, but he faces an uphill climb.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson and Assembly of First Nations' National Chief Perry Bellegarde signed a memorandum of understanding as part of the Indigenous group's three-day general assembly.
Paulson, months ago, admitted "there are racists" within the national police force — Bellegarde underscored that when he introduced the chief on Tuesday.
The goal of the agreement, according to Paulson, is to build consent among Indigenous peoples to be policed, as well as to reduce discrimination among officers toward these communities.
The agreement strikes a contrast to the ongoing tension between police and non-white communities in the United States, where many police organizations have resisted the acknowledgement that racism, and racial profiling, may play a role in their policing.
"When Indigenous women don't feel safe, we, the police, have failed."
Canada's indigenous population faces staggering over-representation in the country's prisons, and at least one local police service found that its own force was 40 percent more likely to pull over an Indigenous driver than a white one.
Paulson used the opportunity to acknowledge the police force's role in the residential school system — the program whereby the Canadian government arrested Indigenous youth and took them to boarding schools designed to discourage and assimilate their cultural identity.
"As a father I can't imagine strangers, much less representatives of the state, taking away my children to live somewhere else where their culture is repressed," Paulson said, adding, "as a police force we have to own up to the roles we played in those dark times."
Paulson noted the RCMP has implemented training programs focusing on teaching Indigenous history and culture to officers, and will seek to increase the number of Indigenous officers, which he said currently sits at 8 percent, in order to "better reflect the communities we serve."
Bellegarde said Indigenous officers face a glass ceiling in the RCMP, however, claiming they often can't rise above the role of constable.
Paulson also noted the RCMP will continue to investigate unsolved cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women, saying: "When Indigenous women don't feel safe, we, the police, have failed."
Paulson says he recognizes that the signed agreement are just "words on a page," and are meaningless unless the force pledges to put serious action toward achieving them, though he noted he was proud of the progress made in improving relations with Indigenous communities thus far.
In January, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers, found that Indigenous people makeup over 25 percent of the population in federal correctional centres, the highest rate ever, despite the fact that, "it was identified year after year after year as a major concern, as a human rights concern."
In provincial and territorial custody, the rates are even higher, at 36 percent for women and 25 percent for men, according to Statistics Canada.
Indigenous people makeup just 4.3 percent of the Canadian population, according to the 2011 National Household Survey.
This is a rate of imprisonment 10 times higher than Canada's non-Indigenous population, according to Maclean's, and has led criminologists to refer to Canada's prisons as the "new residential schools."
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