Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed Friday to “changing the systems that do not do right by too many Indigenous people and racialized Canadians.”
It was strong language from the prime minister, as video emerged of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer hitting an Inuit man with a truck, a local police officer in Edmunston, New Brunswick, shot and killed an Indigenous woman during a wellness check; video surfaced of a Black man being pulled by his hair by police in Quebec and questions still swirl around the death of a Black woman in Toronto after Police entered her apartment.
In his morning press conference, Trudeau said “we need to make a change, and we need to start today.”
Asked multiple times about what specific measures his government would take to combat the scourge of police brutality, and systemic racism in policing, Trudeau didn’t provide a direct answer.
Trudeau vowed to address the calls to justice of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, but stopped short of naming individual priorities. He said he would be meeting with cabinet and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki later today.
While Trudeau was mum on individual priorities on Friday, there has been no lack of priorities that have been called for by police and justice reform advocates in recent years. Some of them have even been endorsed by the governing Liberals, but not implemented.
While policing is a municipal and provincial concern in many cities and municipalities, the federal government is responsible for the policies of the RCMP. Across Canada, roughly one-in-four officers are members of the federal police force, and provide police services for many parts of the country, including the entirety of the territories.
Even though RCMP officers are the main police force for huge swaths of the country, there is no investigative body that is tasked to investigate cases where RCMP officers use force. There is the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, which can take in complaints about officers actions but can only make recommendations to the RCMP—which is not obligated to actually implement them. What’s more, the civilian commission has seen a huge rise in complaints, without a corresponding increase in resources, leading to a backlog.
In Ontario, by contrast, the independent Special Investigations Unit automatically investigates incidents where Ontarians are seriously injured or killed during interactions with police. (Although the SIU is not without its problems, and has been criticized conducting investigations behind closed doors.)
But, in Saskatchewan—where the RCMP provides local policing for areas outside major cities—there is no such review body. Incidents where RCMP officers injure or kill someone are overseen by an “investigation observer” who must be a serving or retired cop.
A 2017 report from Human Rights Watch on police abuse of Indigenous women in Saskatchewan specifically recommended that Ottawa make the complaints commissions’ recommendations mandatory. The Trudeau government has not done so.
Body-worn cameras, meanwhile, are a rare issue that proves popular both with police officers and critics of modern policing. The cameras have proved helpful in documenting instances of police abuse in other jurisdictions in recent years, but have also been useful in thwarting the rare case of a baseless complaint against an officer. Although amid the George Floyd protests sweeping across the U.S. there has been criticism of the technology, as some advocates say it is merely another source of funding for police. There have also been concerns that poor implementation of the technology has allowed officers to turn off the cameras at will and let departments withhold damning footage.
The RCMP had been equipping its officers with the cameras as part of a pilot study. After the study was completed, in 2015, the RCMP pulled the cameras it already had in the field, and suspended the program “indefinitely.”
But, as VICE News has previously reported, the study—which was never released to the public—found that the cameras “produced a positive impact on law enforcement.” The main disadvantage, the report found, was cost.
To date, RCMP officers still do not have the cameras, with the Nunavut branch only now considering implementing them after an officer hit an Inuk man with his RCMP vehicle.
The RCMP does not publish statistics on its own use of force, either. As VICE News uncovered in 2015, the federal police force refuses to hand over data on how many Canadians have died during interactions with its officers. The RCMP does not even track use of force based on the ethnicity.
The Canadian Border Services Agency, which manages entry points to the country and has a number of policing powers, has faced a litany of allegations of racism and discrimination. Five years into their government, the Liberals have yet to add independent oversight of the agency.
The Liberal government had promised, before entering government in 2015, to change Canada’s prostitution laws, which sex workers say puts their lives in danger and effectively criminalizes their work. That hasn’t happened, and consultations around the law have appeared to go nowhere.
Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of the publication of the final report of the Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. The report specifically called attention to the extreme over-representation of Indigenous women and girls in prisons, noting that federal mandatory minimum sentences are partly to blame.
Earlier this week, the Native Women’s Association of Canada released a report card on the Trudeau government’s progress, blasting a general lack of action from the federal government. “The over-incarceration of Indigenous women in Canada remains unchanged,” the report card notes.
Those recommendations aren’t new, either. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, published in June 2015, similarly recommends scrapping mandatory minimum sentences.
The Trudeau government, in recent years, has actually lengthened jail time for many offences.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has resisted calls to release non-violent and low-risk federal inmates. More than a quarter of all federal inmates are Indigenous, and more than 8% are Black. Beyond just being over-represented, federal corrections officers are more likely to use force against non-white inmates: In 60% of all cases where corrections officers used force, the inmate was Black or Indigenous, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator.
The Correctional Investigator has continued to find that racism and discrimination is common against Black and Indigenous inmates.
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