If ever there was a time to discuss what “defunding police” actually means, it might be now. Canadians are watching protests that began under the guise of opposing vaccine mandates for truckers but have morphed into something more like an occupation, and are asking: Whose law and whose order is being protected here?
This discussion has been happening for decades in Indigenous and Black communities, on a continent founded on violence, amid endless reports, national inquiries, inquests and investigations on how the justice system has failed them. In the U.S., president Andrew Jackson enacted policies that empowered the military and law enforcement to clear Indigenous tribes from the southeast; here in Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police cleared the West while the police-backed residential school system took our children. So Indigenous peoples have long understood that the strong arm of the law is too often applied unequally, appearing as punishment and indifference, driven by systemically racist policies and institutions.
We have paid for this with our lives. In 2016, 37-year-old Abdirahman Abdi was killed by Ottawa Police; the officer was acquitted of all charges. In 1995, Kettle & Stony Point First Nation land defender Dudley George was shot to death by the Ontario Provincial Police. And in 2020, an RCMP officer killed Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s Chantel Moore in Edmundston, N.B., during a wellness check, after which the officer was cleared. And yet we have not disrupted the country to the degree that protesters in Ottawa and at three border points have – and in those cases, law enforcement officials have effectively thrown their hands up in the air.
These must be uncomfortable and destabilizing times for Canadians who believe in peace, order and good government. Yet we know something about how it feels when police stand by or look away. We know how it feels when the police are not there to protect you. We know how it feels when you’re on the outside looking in, with no one to turn to.
What we have seen play out in Ottawa, in Coutts, Alta., and in Windsor, Ont., is about much more than protesters building hot tubs or holding weekend dance parties. What we are seeing, on a wide scale, is the inequality of so-called law and order.
The Ottawa police has said that it needs more resources to take on the protesters, which seems at odds with any argument to “defund.” But there’s a bigger issue at play – one that requires a bigger conversation about the nature of power and justice in Canada. After all, when was the last time you saw the mayor of Ottawa, the premier of Ontario and the prime minister of the country all appear absolutely powerless against sustained protests? Why did the federal government feel as if it had no choice but to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time? Police forces may be under-resourced, but what happened to the law enforcement that was supposed to exist?
The way in which “protesters” have been allowed to occupy cities and disrupt borders reveals a profound double standard. If these were Black Lives Matter or Idle No More gatherings, police would have shut them down in a matter of hours, not weeks. We certainly would not be permitted to erect a sound stage, for instance. After all, it wasn’t long after land defenders took a forest service road that militarized RCMP officers stormed onto unceded Wet’suwet’en territory and arrested elders, matriarchs and journalists.
And if you did not think the convoy protests were also fuelled by racial inequity and a lack of understanding, look no further than the resignation of Peter Sloly, Ottawa’s first Black police chief, who was blamed for not stopping what paralyzed politicians said was basically unstoppable. This is the same Mr. Sloly who ruffled feathers when he said there was “systemic racism” in the force after George Floyd’s 2020 death in Minneapolis, and was called a failed leader as a result by the Ottawa Police Association’s president. Mr. Sloly’s resignation signals how difficult it is to achieve reform from within.
Defunding police does not necessarily translate into police disappearing. It means having a real dialogue about the roles and responsibilities of justice and policing. It means looking at how to make things fairer. It means examining alternatives such as community policing options or unarmed Indigenous forces, which could apply different tactics to defuse situations. The city of Halifax, where a police board subcommittee released its report on the topic in January, is having that conversation. Other forces would be wise to do the same.
When people have to come out of their houses to stand in front of trucks to stop a convoy because no one else will, there’s a deeper problem with the institution itself. It’s time for Canadians to open their eyes and see it for what it is.
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