Jula Hughes is the dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University. Elizabeth Blaney is the director of administration and program development at the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council.
In June of last year, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls called for measures to improve the relationship between the RCMP and Indigenous communities across Canada. The message was clear: The RCMP cannot be effective in helping end the violence against Indigenous women, girls, and gender and sexual minorities unless it has the trust of the people. This led the inquiry to “call on all actors in the justice system, including police services, to build respectful working relationships with Indigenous peoples.” RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki committed to working on this; there is every reason to think that she was sincere.
Since then, however, the federal government’s pipeline ambitions have intervened. After a B.C. Supreme Court injunction was issued on Dec. 31, the RCMP entered Wet’suwet’en traditional territory and in some cases displaced supporters of the hereditary chiefs who have opposed Coastal GasLink’s proposed pipeline on their lands. Countrywide protests have ensued, with blockades impeding critical infrastructure.
This collides with a key finding of the national inquiry: that there is a connection between violence against Indigenous women and girls and state interference with land.
On Thursday morning, Ottawa announced that the B.C. RCMP will move away from Wet’suwet’en territory. That is a step in the right direction, even though Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s insistence around the independent operations of the RCMP serves to reinforce the idea that the police are adversaries of Indigenous peoples. Only time will tell whether this moment marks a reorientation in the government’s approach toward reconciliation and good-faith negotiation, or whether this is merely a tactical move to end the barricades. But regardless, this retreat doesn’t erase the high-profile, highly visible interventions that have already undermined what will invariably be a centrepiece of the way forward for Indigenous women and girls: building a better relationship between Indigenous communities and the RCMP.
For the past four years, research teams from five universities have been visiting Indigenous communities from Quebec to Newfoundland and Labrador to seek input on how to end the violence that causes Indigenous women and girls to go missing, and how to better respond to Indigenous missing persons reports. We found that distrust of police and the ubiquitous threat of having children removed by child protection services are major contributors to late and incomplete reporting of missing Indigenous persons. This is important because early, comprehensive reporting is closely tied to good outcomes in terms of locating people safe and sound.
Yet, myths about waiting periods abound, and concerns about lack of police responsiveness stand in the way of getting necessary assistance. Victims of violence and their families need to know that the police are on their side, that police will respond to calls quickly and reliably, and that they have the necessary cultural competency to interact with Indigenous callers reporting a missing person with compassion and respect. While police responses are only one aspect of an effective strategy for ending the violence against Indigenous women and girls, no strategy can succeed without effective policing, which requires government to support the RCMP's relationship-building work.
It may be inconvenient for the federal government to have to negotiate rather than send in the Mounties. It may even delay some projects and derail some others altogether. But RCMP intervention on Indigenous protests sends a message that the RCMP are the enemy – which in turn continues to put Indigenous women at grave risk of violent victimization.
One solution that has been proposed is to remove Indigenous policing from the RCMP portfolio of services. Our research shows that this is not a promising avenue. This is because Indigenous peoples are not interested in the niceties of organizational charts and jurisdictional boundaries when it comes to policing; police are police, whether they are federal, provincial or municipal. Instead of further dividing areas of policing and exposing Indigenous women and girls to the many cracks in a system of fractured responsibilities, what is needed is an integrated policing strategy that has the capacity to build trusting and respectful relationships.
The RCMP cannot carry out its promise to pursue these if their political masters continue to direct them to stand up for the fossil-fuel industry. The RCMP are caught between a rock and a hard place when the government tries to have it both ways.
Ultimately, ending the violence requires building relationships. And relationships don’t thrive when one side is wearing riot gear.
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