The police officer who shot and killed Chantel Moore during a so-called wellness check in Edmundston, N.B., wasn’t wearing a body camera, so it’s likely that many details of the encounter that left the 26-year-old Indigenous woman dead will never be known. Police say Ms. Moore, a member of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in British Columbia, was brandishing a knife; Ms. Moore’s family say she was a slight, non-violent person, and that she was shot five times at close range.
But we do know that Indigenous women live particularly imperilled lives in this country, and that the police are too often part of the danger rather than a protection from it. We also know, thanks to reporting from The Globe and Mail, that more than one-third of people fatally shot by the RCMP in the past ten years were Indigenous. We know, thanks to reporting from CTV News, that an Indigenous person is 10 times as likely to be shot dead by police as a white person in this country.
We know that the history of Indigenous women’s relationship with police, stewed in centuries of racism and sexism, has been marred by sexual misconduct, exploitation and a fatal lack of attention to the real dangers threatening them. This has been well documented, over and over again, as we’ll see. But while the reports are being written and the press conferences held, nothing much actually changes to keep Indigenous women safe. So when Ms. Moore’s six-year-old daughter Gracie told one of her relatives that she doesn’t want to die like her mother, that’s not a child’s wild fantasy. That’s a calculation about the threats she may face one day as an Indigenous woman in this country.
In the wake of the killing of Ms. Moore and an Indigenous man in New Brunswick, Rodney Levi, during interactions with police, the director of the Native Women’s Association of Canada has written a letter to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki (the same Commissioner who came very late to the notion that there might be systemic racism in Canada’s national police force). NWAC’s Lorraine Whitman requested three things: that front-line police officers be equipped with body cameras; that a “shoot-to-kill” policy not be in place in situations where the subject isn’t armed with a firearm and that de-escalation is taught instead; and that the RCMP stand aside on calls regarding Indigenous people with mental-health issues, allowing social workers, health care workers or elders to answer the calls.
Crucially, Ms. Whitman also asked Commissioner Lucki to agree to a task force that would “rewrite the relationship between police and Indigenous women.” She added, “We want culturally appropriate protocols that will keep our women, girls and gender-diverse people safe, not just from street killers and other assailants who have targeted them as prey, but from the police themselves.”
Perhaps this could be the final task force, the one that finally revealed why all the other reports, inquiries and investigations had failed to stop police harm toward Indigenous women. It’s such a long list that I’ll only mention a few – and these are from the past 10 years alone. In 2012, Wally Oppal’s inquiry into the Robert Pickton investigation uncovered “blatant failures” in policing that allowed the serial killer to prey on his victims, many of whom were Indigenous women. “The women were poor, they were addicted, vulnerable, aboriginal. They did not receive equal treatment by police,” Mr. Oppal said at the time.
Four years later, another commission was struck in Quebec in the wake of a devastating Radio-Canada documentary about the mistreatment of Indigenous women – including sexual assault and harassment – at the hands of provincial police. The scope of the inquiry was broadened to include provincial police forces’ relationship to all Indigenous people, disappointing advocates who were hoping that the particular, exploitative treatment of women would be addressed.
It’s not like these issues are confined to one police service in one corner of the country. In 2013, Human Rights Watch issued a report about police misconduct toward Indigenous women along the so-called “Highway of Tears” in Northern B.C., including “excessive use of force, and physical and sexual assault.” Four years after that, HRW issued another report about police abuse of Indigenous women in Saskatchewan, including groping, harassment and violence.
Nor are these relics of some distant past. Just last year the Legal Services Board of Nunavut wrote a letter to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission of the RCMP, alleging that Inuit women were the subject of degrading strip searches and excessive violence, as well as having their complaints about domestic violence overlooked. These police services, it should not need to be said, are meant to protect citizens, not harm them.
You could build a house out of all the reports and scour its rooms in vain for meaningful action. We haven’t even begun to talk about the federal government’s failure to act on the calls to justice contained in last year’s report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The Trudeau Liberals have blamed the pandemic for their failure to come up with an action plan, an excuse that the inquiry’s chief commissioner Marion Buller had no time for: “Using COVID-19 as an excuse for delaying a national action plan – to me – is really like saying, well, the dog ate my homework.”
As advocates have been saying all along, the answers are out there, should the country have the political will to implement them. Should the country want to build a safer and more humane future for Ms. Moore’s daughter.
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