Canada's Mythic RCMP Stuck in the Wrong Century

Marge Hudson, a former Indigenous female RCMP officer, has launched a class action lawsuit against the organization for rampant, decades-long systemic racism.
July 17, 2020, 10:00am
Royal Canadian Mounted Police
The RCMP's current paramilitary model is outdated and creates a breeding ground for racism, experts say. Photo by Jack Taylor (Getty)

A former Indigenous officer with Canada’s federal police force is pursuing a class action lawsuit against her former employer, alleging pervasive, decades-long systemic racism.

Margorie (Marge) Hudson, an Ojibwe woman from Berens River First Nation in Manitoba, said she was subject to racial harassment throughout the entirety of her 31-year-long career with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), starting on day one.

“My supervisor said, ‘You better not quit because all Indians quit,’ and I was like, ‘What?’” said Hudson, who was the first Indigenous woman with federally recognized Indian status to work with the RCMP in Manitoba. “It really set the tone for the job.”

On July 7, Hudson filed a class action lawsuit against the force with the help from her lawyer, David Klein. The two hope they will win monetary compensation for racialized RCMP members who have experienced discrimination. More importantly, they want the suit to spark systemic change within a federal police force that is straining to modernize in the 21st century.

“I don't want people to fear for their lives like I did,” Hudson said, adding that the RCMP needs to acknowledge discrimination and consult with and learn from Indigenous leaders, including elders, to address systemic racism and make the work environment more hospitable for Indigenous recruits.

In a statement to VICE News, the RCMP said it cannot comment on the ongoing legal case, but offered a broad statement decrying discrimination.

“There is no room for racism—or any other kind of discrimination—in the RCMP,” said spokesperson Catherine Fortin.

It only took two days following the suit’s announcement for more than 80 former and current officers—mostly Black and Indigenous—to reach out to Klein with horrific stories of their own, citing racial slurs, isolation from colleagues, and fewer opportunities for professional development than their white coworkers, Klein said.

Klein has also led a class action suit against the RCMP’s patterns of gender-based harassment and discrimination, so he’s well aware of the force’s longstanding systemic issues.

“The culture within the RCMP for over 100 years has not been friendly towards women or minority groups,” Klein said. “It takes a lot of time and effort to change the culture of a large, geographically diffuse organization...That doesn’t mean it shouldn't be done.”

Just last week, Maclean’s published a feature highlighting how the RCMP is broken. In addition to a history of rampant racism, the force suffers from outdated and complicated bureaucracy, understaffing, low pay, and overworked officers, particularly those stationed in remote regions. The piece also noted the force’s blatant mishandling of the worst killing spree in Canadian history, which took place in Nova Scotia in April.

Darryl Davies is a professor with Carleton’s Sociology department with expertise in federal policing, and he said the RCMP is stuck in the past.

“It’s ridiculous, out-of-date, and doesn’t suit the 21st century,” Davies said.

‘The day I left, I never felt so good in my life’

Hudson’s experiences show how difficult it was to be Indigenous in the RCMP in just the recent past.

Hudson’s three decades on the job were full of experiences that she believes wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t Indigenous: when she gained some weight from stress, white male colleagues made comments about how “all Indigenous women are fat”; it took eleven years for the RCMP to promote Hudson; she was paid less and had fewer professional development opportunities than white colleagues; supervisors rarely let Hudson take leave when she wanted; and she witnessed how coworkers intimidated and used disproportionate force against Indigenous peoples living on reserves. Hudson added that her white colleagues often had more say than she did over small perks like where they were stationed.

Hudson also recounted to Global News in 2019 how her boss once insinuated that she should clear an officer who was being investigated for assaulting a teenage girl.

“The day I left, I never felt so good in my life,” Hudson said. “I just quit and my boss tried to get me to do more work and I said, “I don’t think you understand, I’m not working anymore and I’m flying to Los Cabos tomorrow. Good bye.’”

Hudson officially retired in 2010 but RCMP officers and vehicles would trigger fear and anxiety for years to come. “I got so paranoid,” Hudson said, adding that another Indigenous friend who also worked for the force experienced the same anxiety.

“She was also so paranoid. Like, ‘They're watching us, they're watching us,’” Hudson said.

According to Davies, a lot of the RCMP-propagated racism that people have watched play out in the news is caused by the “deplorable conditions” officers are dealing with. Officers are often transferred to remote detachments that are understaffed yet serve massive geographical areas, and they’re on-call for 24 hours per day, Davies said. Match that with too little cultural competency about the communities they’re serving—many of which are Indigenous—and the result isn’t good.

An iconic image more myth than reality

The RCMP holds an iconic place in Canada, with the federal police force often depicted in Hollywood and pop culture as friendly, horse-riding rangers wearing red suits and beige, wide-brimmed hats.

That could be part of the problem, said Robert Gordon, a Simon Fraser University criminologist.

“It’s just too good an icon for Canada, isn’t it? It’s like Tim Hortons or hockey; it forms part of the popular image of what our country is all about,” Gordon said.

When discussing the disconnect between the systemic racism pervasive among RCMP ranks and the Hollywood-friendly RCMP stereotype, Gordon said, “The big red machine is not to be underestimated as a propaganda instrument and it sometimes seems like it has been set up by Joseph Goebbels.” (Goebbels was Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda.)

In particular, the RCMP’s relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples has been fraught in recent years, seemingly reaching a new low this winter when heavily armed RCMP officers raided Wet’suwet’en Land Defender Camps. The raids set off protests across the country.

“The failure of RCMP in Ottawa to implement and establish a First Nations training program for RCMP officers is something that should have been done decades ago,” Davies said. “They have an outdated, anachronistic training program and militaristic, authoritarian culture where they drill physical fitness into recruits, but don’t enhance brain power.”

Even if individual officers don’t enter the force holding overtly conscious racist views, once they’re placed in high pressure law enforcement situations with little training, they risk adopting hostile views against the communities they’re meant to protect, Davies said.

“It’s lunacy. We’re focusing on brawn over brain in the RCMP, who are still functioning as if they were formed in the 19th century,” Davies said. “We should have a First Nations training program operating out of the Regina Depot (where RCMP cadets are trained) that develops brain power, it should have been established years ago, and should involve representation from First Nations communities, including elders.”

Davies added that enough isn’t being done to fix the RCMP and the onus is on the federal government, particularly Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, to prioritize RCMP reform.

Last month, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki denied the existence of systemic racism right before Trudeau said it exists within the force. Lucki later changed her mind publicly, but still failed to give an example of systemic racism within the RCMP when pressed.

The reality is that the RCMP’s roots are drenched in anti-Indigenous racism, with the original aim of the force to further colonialism and western migration—in part by asserting control over lands inhabited by Indigenous peoples.

“There’s a long and very strong tradition, from the outset, of racism, even if it was not known as ‘racism’ at the time,” Gordon said. “The sole purpose of the Mounted police was to move the population in the Prairies to make way for other economic interests.”

The first iteration of the federal force sprung up in the 19th century and was inspired by the Royal Irish Constabulary, a paramilitary unit created by the British to keep the Irish under control. The government formally established the RCMP in 1920.

But to this day, the force remains a largely unchanged paramilitary organization, and “the British Cavalry model is right embedded in the RCMP,” Gordon said.

To make it in the RCMP, recruits go to the depot in Regina where they’re “broken down, stripped of autonomy and personality, and then rebuilt over a six-month period or less,” Gordon said, adding that officers then continue on in the force and express a level of subservience to superiors, which likely results in the transfer of racism from one officer to the next.

“There have been a number of cases in the last 50, 60 years, even going back before World War Two, where the RCMP, in a military form, have used military tactics to deal with Indigenous communities protecting their territories,” Gordon said. The Oka Crisis and the recent developments in Wet’suwet’en are but two examples, he said.

RCMP officers are often in the news for using brute force against Indigenous peoples. Over the last few months, at least two instances were caught on camera: in Nunavut, an officer rammed into an Inuk man with his truck door, while in Alberta, a provincial police watchdog is investigating after RCMP officers assaulted a prominent Indigenous chief during an arrest. One officer involved was already facing a previous assault charge at the time. And it’s not just Indigenous peoples. An RCMP officer in British Columbia was filmed dragging a handcuffed woman, who is racialized, face down across the floor. The officer stepped on her head and pulled her hair.

Not every officer is overtly racist, but the outdated militaristic approach creates a system ripe for discrimination and use of force, Gordon said.

“If it is the case that a police officer (or any government agent) is charged with the task of something that is unpleasant to another person or group, it is easier to complete the task if you have defined the person or group as less than human,” Gordon said. That means, by dehumanizing Indigenous peoples and other racialized groups, Canada’s federal police organization has made it easier for officers—even those who don’t start out overtly racist and hateful—to harm racialized people.

Since protests erupted across North America in response to the killing of George Floyd and systemic anti-Black racism among police ranks everywhere, Canadians have watched as the RCMP scrambled to respond to criticism, Lucki’s epic mishandling of systemic racism being the most prominent. Hudson’s new lawsuit is only the latest event drawing attention to the RCMP’s largely outdated existence.

For more than 30 years, Hudson said she watched as her colleagues disregarded cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, mistreated her and fellow Indigenous officers, treated Indigenous community members as “less than,” “roughhoused” elders, and failed to garner trust as a result. Hudson said she was called a “whistleblower” when she tried to speak out against racist behaviour.

“People are asking, ‘Why now?’ Well, it’s not ‘why now,’” Hudson said. “This didn't happen overnight. I’ve been saying this all along, but no one would listen.”

The RCMP is an “old boys club,” Hudson said, but now, it’s time for a long overdue change.

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