More than one-third of the people shot to death by RCMP officers over a 10-year period were Indigenous, according to a document from the police force obtained by The Globe and Mail. That percentage has alarmed First Nations leaders and is prompting calls for more data about police use of force in Canada.
In a December, 2017, briefing note written for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, the RCMP said its officers fatally shot 61 people across Canada between 2007 and 2017. In 22 of those cases, the memo said, the victim was Indigenous.
Twelve deaths, or 20 per cent of the overall total, took place on a reserve or in an Indigenous community. (Unlike First Nations, Inuit communities aren’t on reserve lands.) Several Indigenous people were also killed “off-reserve” – in such cities as Yellowknife, Burnaby, B.C., and Golden, B.C., the memo said.
The memo, released under Access to Information laws, said that the high proportion – 36 per cent – reflects the RCMP’s unique role in policing hundreds of Indigenous communities across Canada.
“It may appear disproportionality [sic] high that 36 per cent of fatal member-involved shootings by the RCMP deal with Indigenous subjects,” the note read.
“However, the RCMP is unlike any other Canadian police service in that it serves over 600 Indigenous communities (approximately 67% of RCMP detachments serve aboriginal communities.)”
The 36-per-cent Indigenous-fatality figure is “totally unacceptable," said Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, after he was provided a copy of the briefing note by The Globe.
“We’re 5 per cent of the [overall] population – of course it’s surprising. Thirty-six per cent of the fatalities from the RCMP are First Nations people? That’s totally unacceptable,” he said, vowing to raise the issue directly with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki. “We call for immediate action to end the killing of our people,” he said. “It’s a highly disproportionate rate. No question.”
The 2017 memo did not provide further context, such as a breakdown of how many Indigenous people live in these communities, how many Indigenous people policed by the RCMP live outside of them, or how many people in total the force polices. The RCMP told The Globe that it does not keep detailed data, or retain race-based statistics about use-of-force incidents.
Criminologists says that data deficit is unfortunate, because previous studies have shown that Indigenous people are seriously injured or fatally shot by police in Canada – and not just by the RCMP – at much higher rates than other groups.
For example, past studies on police use of force in Ontario have found that “in urban areas, African-Canadians are overrepresented, and in rural areas, Indigenous populations are hugely overrepresented,” University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley said in an interview.
In 2017, Mr. Wortley examined a five-year data set on fatal shootings involving all Canadian police. Compiled by CBC, that data also led him to conclude that Indigenous people had a “police-related civilian-death” rate that amounted to more than three times the national average.
He said the briefing note demonstrates a need for police forces to gather and publish more use-of-force statistics.
“One of the things that struck me with the data is there seems to be a lot of what might be called ‘suicide-by-cop’ situations,” he said.
Overall, shootings by RCMP officers are infrequent and usually not fatal. The briefing note says that the Mounties responded to millions of calls each year. On average, there are 21 “member-involved” shootings annually and typically only six of them are lethal.
Of the 61 people killed by Mounties over a decade, 37 were “Caucasian,” one was “Middle Eastern,” one was “mixed race.”
The memo also provided a brief synopsis of each of the fatal shootings.
Some were in response to national-security events, such as a terrorist gunman’s 2014 attack on Parliament Hill or the 2016 case of a would-be suicide bomber shot outside his home in Strathroy, Ont.
The vast majority followed routine calls to the RCMP about assaults, robberies or domestic violence. Many were also about suicidal people who were said to have brandished firearms or knives at the police who arrived on the scene.
None of the officers were charged for wrongdoing, the briefing note said. Most of the shootings were deemed justified though “two incidents were forwarded to the Crown for charge assessment.”
The briefing note was signed by then-acting RCMP commissioner Dan Dubeau and sent in response to a request from Mr. Goodale. It is unclear what action the Liberal government took in response to the briefing note. A spokesman for Mr. Goodale, who lost his seat in the October election, said the outgoing minister will not comment. “We are in a transitional period until a new minister is appointed,” Scott Bardsley said.
The RCMP says all Mounties are educated in “bias-free policing” and in how to de-escalate situations.
The force is testing out less-lethal weaponry and trying to improve its cultural sensitivity. “The RCMP is also developing a new cultural awareness and humility course that will be available to all RCMP employees in the coming months,” said Corporal Caroline Duval, a spokeswoman.