Mo Dhaliwal is a B.C. entrepreneur and media commentator specializing in discussions of race and privilege.
As the RCMP reckon with criticisms of its culture and its actions in the killing of two Indigenous people in separate incidents earlier this summer, the systemic issues of Canada’s national police force are playing out quite transparently in one of the country’s most diverse communities: the city of Surrey. As British Columbia’s second largest city, Surrey is home to one of the largest concentrations of South Asian residents in North America; one-third of its half-million population are of South Asian descent.
In 2018, Surrey City Council voted to transition from an RCMP policing model to an independent municipal police force, with plans to have that force begin operations by 2021. But with the RCMP’s union – the National Police Federation – fanning the flames, B.C.’s party leaders have parachuted in from Victoria to reignite the debate around that decision and opine on the best solution for Surrey. Just last week, BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson announced that if his party won power in the current election, he would hold a referendum on the transition, despite the fact that the work has already been under way.
This constant chorus of political rhetoric has become background noise to many Surrey residents, the apparent cost of challenging the status quo in a city that’s too often treated like a political token. But for evidence that the RCMP are no longer compatible with the city, one needs to look no further than the reporting just last month about the Mounties’ nationwide “beard ban.”
At the start of the pandemic, according to The Globe and Mail, the RCMP decided to stop deploying bearded officers on the front lines because of erroneous concerns about their facial hair’s impact on personal protective equipment. As a result, a number of Sikh and Muslim RCMP officers were pulled from the front lines and assigned to desk duty in the past six months, demoralizing good officers and robbing citizens of much-needed policing resources.
The revelation sparked many questions, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who wondered aloud why the RCMP had not been “upholding health and safety standards, without needing to create discrimination against certain individuals because of their religion.”
Indeed, while other independent police services across B.C. found a reasonable way to accommodate and deploy their bearded officers, the RCMP’s national headquarters insisted it couldn’t because it is “subject to different labour laws than other police agencies” – a response that only confirmed that the Mounties' outdated and centralized decision-making processes were again sacrificing our community’s values and safety.
This kind of exclusion and othering has a history in the RCMP. More than 30 years ago, Baltej Dhillon had to fight to serve as a turban-wearing Sikh. Recent data found 18 per cent of the country’s RCMP officers are visible minorities, a far cry from Surrey’s 61-per-cent racialized population. Now, bearded officers – predominantly people of colour – have been sidelined.
This leads to an environment of mistrust – not just among the ranks, but among the communities they serve. Individually, I know many fine RCMP officers, but systemically, the RCMP propagate harm by broadly failing to reflect the makeup and values of the community it’s supposed to serve, and it has shown an inability to address that in a meaningful way.
For years, the Surrey RCMP detachment has been a place for aspiring officers to serve for a few years and earn their stripes before moving out of the community and on to the job they really want. While that’s a convenient configuration for the RCMP, it has come at the cost of Surrey having a diverse police force that actually understands and represents the community it is serving.
The city of Surrey is not just notable for being the largest Canadian municipality without its own police service, but for being a kaleidoscope of cultures. It’s the type of community that requires meaningful relationships with its government services.
Surrey is a complex place that needs a police force that cares about its people; it does not need a federally mandated detachment, with officers placed in Surrey by a distant human-resources department. Surrey does not need a local detachment of a national organization that has not yet addressed its own admitted systemic racism and has never come to grips with its own history as the storm troopers of colonial genocide. A diverse and growing city such as Surrey deserves better.
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