Perry Bellegarde is National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
As a Cree man, the outrage that has followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis resonates with my experience and my people’s demands for justice. Canadians cannot ignore the dangerous parallels that exist in how Canadian police officers interact with people of different ethnicities and how a distressingly high percentage of First Nations men and women end up either injured or dead at the hands of the people we expect to help and protect us.
Last week, a young mother, Chantel Moore, was killed by a local Edmunston, N.B. policeman who was supposed to be making a wellness check on her. She was reported to be holding a knife and in some emotional distress, but how a knock on the door turned into a confrontation in which the officer felt the need to discharge his weapon five times is hard to imagine. A day later came news that Chief Allan Adam was badly beaten and his wife roughed up during a routine traffic stop by RCMP officers in Fort McMurray in March. The pictures of Chief Adam’s battered face were disturbing, but it is the officers’ voices captured on tape and the speed with which the police escalated the confrontation that should alarm everyone. And Friday night, another First Nations man was shot dead by the Mounties, this time near Miramichi, N.B. The circumstances are always unique, but the resulting escalation and violent confrontation is not.
Until Friday, when Commissioner Brenda Lucki finally admitted her police force has a problem, the RCMP had insisted that its officers respond to situations in the same ways, regardless of whether the civilian on the other side is white, Black or First Nation. But the statistics simply don’t support this claim. Worse, the sentiment among police and First Nations youth is now rife with contempt and distrust.
Let’s spare ourselves another futile debate over whether systemic racism exists in Canada. There have been countless reports over the past 50 years, and the conclusion is always the same: First Nations face systemic racism in every aspect of life and from every institution of Canadian society. This is a fact. It should be clear to everyone by now that Canada’s unwillingness to address systemic racism is killing people. It’s killing Black people and it’s killing First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. We have to move past this unnecessary debate about whether or not systemic racism exists and we have to do it now.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made considerable efforts toward reconciliation and creating economic opportunities for First Nations, his government remains notably silent on dealing with systemic racism within the justice and corrections systems. Restorative justice delayed is restorative justice denied. It is clear this is not a problem that will heal itself.
Canadians spend so much money on policing despite knowing that it can’t solve the pressing social problems facing marginalized communities. In recent days, there have been mounting calls all over the world to “defund the police.” My question is this: When our young First Nations, in distress, call for help, are the police the right people to answer?
As a country, our focus must be on peace and justice more than law and order. Some would try to argue that the difference between those two philosophies is minimal, but I believe it is the difference between life and death. Instead of putting more guns and armoured cars in the hands of police forces, let’s try funding better schools and after-school sports programs that are proven to successfully reduce drug use and gang violence. Instead of more police officers, let’s focus on ones that are better trained, with higher compensation available to retain those with the best records for de-escalating conflict and not harming those they’re supposed to be helping.
The memory of Martin Luther King has been evoked many times over the past few weeks. One thing he said has always stood out to me: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” It is hard to imagine more challenging times than these, yet it is precisely now that we need Mr. Trudeau and his team to finish the job that they started.
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