Benson Cowan is the CEO of Nunavut Legal Aid.
Canadians recently learned about a disturbing incident that occurred late on Monday evening in Kinngait, formerly known as Cape Dorset, a small and famously culturally vibrant community in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut. It was recorded on video and posted on social media.
The video showed a stumbling Inuk man picking himself up after a fall and walking with great difficulty. A police truck travels toward him, moving quickly, and the driver, a trained RCMP officer, strikes the man with an open door. He falls to the ground. Then five police officers descend on him to make an arrest. A recent report from The Globe and Mail revealed that the man, who was intoxicated, was then placed in a cell where another prisoner is alleged to have beaten him so badly he had to be airlifted to a hospital.
This is not a one-off incident. It reflects the systematic practice of violence and unnecessary force toward Inuit by the RCMP in Nunavut. In our work with Nunavut Legal Aid, my colleagues and I regularly hear reports of excessive violence during arrests or while accused people are in custody.
Both men and women report unnecessary, invasive and embarrassing strip searches. Illegal entry into residences is reported. The rate of deaths while in police custody in Nunavut is significantly higher than in any other province or territory. Too often, the Crown and the courts let these incidents pass without comment or consequence. Sadly and disturbingly, it has become normal.
The problematic attitude is not just directed toward accused people. Community members have raised concerns about non-responsiveness when they call the police for help. In December, as was widely reported, a court in Nunavut expressed frustration that two women who were victims of domestic violence had been charged for having consumed alcohol in breach of a court order after the police were called.
These stories are common across the territory. In almost every one of the cases, the police officer is a white southerner and the accused person or community member is Inuk. It is impossible to see the issue without also understanding that racist and colonial views and values are at the core of these problems.
I am not anti-police. I have worked positively with police in my law practice in Canada and as a prosecutor and justice official with the United Nations in different peacekeeping missions. I have also been involved in civilian oversight of municipal policing in Ontario, and police oversight and conduct issues in Kosovo, Liberia and the Solomon Islands.
I have friends serving as police officers in Canada and elsewhere. As someone who lives in a small community in Nunavut and who grew up in a series of small, remote Indigenous communities in Manitoba and Northern Ontario, I understand first-hand the critical importance of good, community-focused police services. I also know how destructive and damaging bad policing is.
It is time to accept and acknowledge that the RCMP is failing in Nunavut. In the current atmosphere, the RCMP simply cannot provide communities with the level and character of services they so critically need.
We need to recognize that part of the issue is that individual officers are put in impossible situations. Policing in Nunavut is difficult. Community detachments are small and under-resourced. It appears that the lack of proper facilities in Kinngait contributed to unsafe conditions that resulted in the later assault of the man in the video.
And the communities themselves do not have sufficient resources and supports for community members that might reduce some of the challenges individual police officers face. Front line officers are being set up to fail. While this does not excuse specific acts of violence, racism and misconduct, it does help understand some of the reasons why there is a systematic pattern of dysfunction.
The RCMP’s reaction to the Kinngait video was to begin both a criminal and a misconduct investigation. But this alone isn’t likely to improve the culture or address the systemic issues with policing in Nunavut. We need to see committed and sustained action to engage in ensuring that these incidents simply do not repeat themselves, escaping notice for the most part until someone happens to capture a problem on video.
Now is the time for the government of Nunavut, the government of Canada, senior RCMP officials and communities to recognize the problem and commit to a sustained process of identifying and implementing changes. Specifically, better funding for police and communities, better training, increased collaboration on restorative justice issues across the social-services sector, more Inuit police officers, increased accountability, better management, a healthier workplace culture, and meaningful civilian oversight.
We have a stark example currently playing out in the United States of what happens when we allow racism, violence and indifference to grow unchecked within police services. We have it better in Canada but we are headed in the wrong direction. Nunavut has the opportunity to lead and set an example.
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