Fixing the Seemingly Poisoned Relationship Between the RCMP and Aboriginal Women
Following news of yet another RCMP officer mistreating an aboriginal woman, we speak to a woman who has some ideas about beginning to repair that fractured relationship.
The RCMP is currently under pressure as aboriginal leaders have called for an independent inquiry after a discovery by the CBC of a shocking abuse of power that occurred in a Manitoba detachment.
The broadcaster obtained documents revealing that in 2011, constable Kevin Theriault took an aboriginal women home to pursue what he called a "personal relationship" several hours after she was arrested for intoxication and checked into a holding cell. The story, which went live on Thursday, further details how his colleagues provoked Theriault via text message to see "how far he would go" and goes on in detail about how the senior officer in the detachment at first said "it wasn't right" for Theriault to take the woman out of custody but eventually acquiesced, saying, "You arrested her, you can do whatever the fuck you want to do."
Subsequently two RCMP officers tailed Theriault home and reported him, and he was then ordered to bring the woman to her home. A disciplinary decision was not reached until last year, at which time the officer was reprimanded and lost pay for seven days.
This isn't the first time, even in recent history, that the RCMP has been criticized for its treatment of aboriginal women. In early December, a Smithers, BC RCMP officer was investigated for using excessive force on 61-year-old Wet'suwet'en elder Irene Joseph. Then there was 71-year-old NWT elder Loretta Edjericon, who alleged that she was elbowed in the face when RCMP officers pushed their way into her home. Most recently, a report surfaced of a Portage la Prairie RCMP constable who took a complaint from a woman who in 2011 was choked, beaten, stripped, and pushed out of a house naked by her boyfriend. The constable didn't interview any witnesses and tried to convince the woman not to lay charges.
Underneath all of this is the issue of the more than 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women that Prime Minister Stephen Harper says "isn't really high" on his radar.
Clearly there's a problem. And despite Harper's belief that the of murders of young aboriginal women like Tina Fontaine are criminal and not sociological, other groups believe that the problem is systemic. In fact, on Monday the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a report in which they point to Canada's history of colonization, inequality, and economic and social marginalization as some of the root causes of violence against aboriginal women.
The report uses data collected by the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC). NWAC's goal, according to its website, is "to enhance, promote, and foster the social, economic, cultural and political well-being of First Nations and Métis women within First Nation, Métis, and Canadian societies." In August 2014, NWAC announced a partnership with the RCMP and the Assembly of First Nations on an awareness campaign aimed at preventing family violence and raising awareness about reporting missing persons.
VICE spoke with Dr. Dawn Harvard, vice president of NWAC, and someone who has been working closely with the RCMP to improve relations with aboriginal community, to find out how, if at all, we can repair the fractured relationship between law enforcement and aboriginal communities.
VICE: First off, what do you think this story says about the relationship between the RCMP and aboriginal women?
Dawn Harvard: In my opinion it's very saddening: the lack of appropriate response. I was quite recently working on developing a better relationship with the RCMP, so I'm really hoping that this doesn't damage the work that we are trying to do together, because obviously we need their cooperation and support to have a significant impact on the issue of missing and murdered women, and this kind of thing is obviously very damaging. Looking at that particular story, seeing that it was not just the one officer, but it was the others who turned a blind eye, in a sense condoning the behaviour. It's really very distressing. That there is a lack of holding each other accountable. It's something that happened three years ago. And I can only hope that this particularly tragic incident can bring light to what is, I fear, a much larger issue. We have heard about these kinds of incidents happening in the past. And I don't want to say specifically with the RCMP, but with police enforcement. Obviously any time you have somebody who is in a position of complete authority over vulnerable people, whether it be a prison, or social services, or children's aid, we have to be very careful, and they need to be held to a higher standard.
You've worked with the RCMP to foster a better understanding with aboriginal communities. Could you elaborate on what you think should have happened, and what you hope becomes more of a policy in the future?
I think some of the articles out there have pointed to the necessity of an independent review or investigation. That's where I think we need to look at systemic issues in terms of how we are investigating, and therefore, by extension, how we are responding to these kinds of things. Because in this position there is a tremendous power imbalance, and it's very, very concerning. And once again, I am a little concerned by the lack of what I think is appropriate response, even for the individuals who essentially condoned [Theriault's behaviour] by not stopping it. That's a classic situation of violence against women in general, right? If you know this is going on, and you're not stepping in, you're not stopping it, then you are condoning it. And that's the kind of message we need to get across. Not just for enforcement, but throughout Canadian society in general.
Let's talk about what you see as the roots of the problem.
This is not something new. This really is just the most current manifestation of a long-standing, historical problem. And the legacy of racist, sexist policies, practices, and history in Canada. The dehumanization of indigenous peoples in general has been going on in Canada for hundreds of years. What started out as a convenient excuse to remove people from their own territory and justify the breaking of treaties, and obvious historical abuses that happened. It was part of a larger mentality that allowed what one would hope are normally good people to justify their own behaviour by dehumanizing and degrading indigenous people. And that has been going on as part of the larger colonization project for generations upon generations to justify that abuse which, for the most part, has from the very beginning been about economics. It was about land, it was about justifying the extermination of a people because they were here first. So it's not something that is particularly a part of the police force. I think it's something that's part of, sadly, Canadian society in general. And North American society. We see it happen in the treatment of indigenous people in countries around the world. We see it in Australia, that kind of dehumanization. But the challenge is, for indigenous women, since you brought the question up, there is that additional layer of sexism. So even in a society that has historically oppressed and degraded its own women, you now have that double factor of the racism and the sexism, and that not only are they property, they're property of a lesser people. That goes together to make a situation where our women are the most vulnerable and that's what the whole thing about missing and murdered indigenous women is all about. People think indigenous women are less worthy.
How do you tackle something that seems so deeply ingrained?
That's exactly the challenge. My own field is specifically in education, and I think number one is, that's where we need to start. It is absolutely appalling the number of people in the country who just... their perceptions, their opinions, their beliefs about indigenous peoples are based on John Wayne-type movies. And have absolutely no connection to the reality of indigenous people in this country, the indigenous people right down the street, or that work in their own offices, in their own backyards. That's appalling. That [change] is going to have to start with the generation that's in kindergarten right now, and work its way through. I personally, if nothing else, am making a large effort in that particular direction. But that's going to take a couple of generations to start having that kind of awareness. Whether it's native women, whether it's the Assembly of First Nations, whether it's the media, there needs to be a concerted effort to look into these myths. And the media is right there: something that has been villainized for a very long time as continuing to perpetuate racist stereotypes, could be our biggest ally and champion in terms of ending those kind of myths.
What do you see as present, concrete things that can be done between aboriginal people and the RCMP?
They can see this as a black mark or they can see this as as a chance for really good change. Not to sweep it under the rug, not to say it's one bad apple. To say, "We're going to make sure this never happens again." You can never know 100 percent, but we can come out strong on this and say that we are putting in place efforts for more accountability on things like this, more transparency. They have to recognize that this is not something that only happens to indigenous women. This is, unfortunately, something that happens around the world, to whichever vulnerable sector there is. There are lots and lots of studies that show that. We have heard of this happening: women come into our offices for different programs, and they have complained [of police mistreatment]. So it's not unheard of. But here's an obviously clear case that you can take that you can deal with in a very proactive way, that you can show we're going to do something about it.
What do you think the chances of that happening are?
That I won't comment on. But I would like to say that if the sincerity of the RCMP members I was working with before Christmas means anything, then I do have a measure of hope that they will take the lead on some of this. We can hope. It's that ability to hope, even against all other signs to the contrary, that keeps you going and fighting and struggling for the change. And eventually things do change.
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