Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and historian from Montreal.
While calls to defund the RCMP in the wake of widespread protests against police brutality have left some people incredulous, it’s worth considering a comparatively recent historical precedent.
After the murder of two Somali men by members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment in 1993, the federal government disbanded the unit. A public inquiry revealed widespread racism, brutal hazing rituals and a concerted effort to cover it all up. Defence officials argued a familiar line – a few bad apples – but it was hard to believe when weighed against the damning video and photographic evidence. Rex Murphy summarized it neatly when he said, “We promised them peacekeepers, and, in some cases, we sent them thugs.” Indeed, some of our supposedly elite soldiers were ill-tempered sadists, the unit a dumping ground for discipline cases and white supremacists. Public support for the military plummeted: What kind of Canadian soldiers keep a Confederate flag in their barracks?
By the end of the 1980s, Canada supported a large military designed to counter a threat that had ceased to exist. The wave of revolutions that swept the globe from mid-1989 through the end of 1991 brought about the end of international communism, the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. A global order in the making since the First World War evaporated in the blink of an eye. Peaceful, people-power protests brought down some of the most oppressive regimes in recorded history, and optimists at home and abroad spoke of a peace dividend: With the Cold War over, reductions in military spending would free up public money for education and health care.
We find ourselves in a similar situation today: a rapidly changing world and a state weighed down by monolithic organizations ill-suited for change, unwilling to acknowledge their obsolescence and paralyzed by deeply ingrained organizational dysfunction.
Then as now, bodies are piling up.
The RCMP was created as a means to control Indigenous people. They served and protected white settlers, denying First Nations, Métis and Inuit self-determination with force.
At the beginning of this year, we witnessed how little has changed over the past century and a half. In response to a few elders blocking the development of a pipeline, the RCMP deployed de facto soldiers, armed with assault rifles, invading Indigenous territory with helicopters and armoured vehicles. Somebody high up the command chain thought this was an appropriate response to a handful of unarmed and non-violent protesters. With crime rates in steady decline nationwide, is the national police force now to become an army for the oil and gas industry?
The RCMP invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory is just one example of a disturbing trend of escalating police violence and excessive force in Canada. Last month saw two police killings of Indigenous people in New Brunswick alone. The RCMP officer who shot and killed Rodney Levi was responding to a call about a disturbance at a church barbecue. Chantel Moore was shot and killed by police on a wellness check.
One standout example something is seriously wrong with the RCMP is April’s rampage killing in Nova Scotia, which lasted more than 13 hours and claimed 22 lives. The emergency alert wasn’t activated; the public wasn’t warned. Two RCMP officers discharged their weapons into a fire hall being used as a Red Cross registration centre for evacuees from the Portapique area. No one was injured. The perpetrator was known to police, suspected of holding illegal weapons and had a history of aggressive anti-social behaviour. But, most significant of all, he was well-known for his obsession with the police, as evidenced by his collection of uniforms, equipment and carefully restored squad cars. A man with anger issues and a suspected cache of firearms spent his downtime cosplaying as an officer and this didn’t set off any alarm bells?
Perhaps we’ve become more tolerant of barbarism over the past 25 years; we certainly see enough of it. In retrospect, it may seem surprising that it only took some shaky camcorder footage and a couple dozen photographs to persuade the political class to take the unprecedented step of disbanding the airborne regiment. Pictures of a Canadian soldier grinning idiotically over the mutilated body of Shidane Arone were too much for the public to bear. The inquiry revealed widespread problems in the unit and throughout the Canadian Forces. Twelve days before the murder of Mr. Arone, soldiers shot two men in the back as they fled the military camp, wounding one before firing again – possibly at close range – and killing Ahmed Aruush. The inquiry’s final report indicated neither men had posed any threat to the soldiers and fled the moment they felt spotted. Mr. Aruush’s wounds were so grave that his body couldn’t be moved for fear it would fall apart. Worse still, members of the regiment had laid a trap – food and water – in order to catch thieves. The commander had requalified thievery as sabotage, which in turn allowed for the use of lethal force.
Mr. Arone’s killing defies comprehension: The 16-year-old was tortured, sodomized and ultimately beaten to death for about 2½ hours. At least three soldiers were directly involved in abusing Mr. Arone, though another dozen may have had direct knowledge of the beating. Perhaps as many as 80 soldiers were close enough to the bunker to hear his anguished cries and did nothing. Mr. Arone is said to have either muttered or shouted “Canada, Canada, Canada” as his last words.
Public outrage exploded in November, 1994, when a publication ban was lifted on photos of the beating. The floodgates opened; more pictures surfaced, including headshots of the two troopers most directly involved in Mr. Arone’s death, a Confederate battle flag hanging in the background. The extent of the pervasive toxicity of the unit takes on a baffling new dimension when you consider that these men standing proudly before an American symbol of white supremacy are both Cree. Video footage revealed racist tirades, blackface and Black recruits smeared with feces in the form of the letters “KKK.” Of the two men who faced the most serious charges, one spent five years behind bars, while the other was deemed unfit to stand trial as a consequence of brain damage suffered as a result of a highly suspicious suicide attempt. The seven other men charged were either acquitted or convicted of lesser offences. They were all white. The inquiry revealed evidence strongly suggesting a cover-up that reached as high as the Chief of the Defence Staff, but was cut short before the 1997 federal election; it was arbitrarily judged to have exceeded its mandate. Time and again, Canada’s political class demands accountability only when it serves the narrow interest of defeating political opponents. Once this goal is accomplished, accountability becomes an inconvenience.
There is an epidemic of unjustifiable police violence in Canada targeting Black and Indigenous people, people of colour and people with mental-health issues. So many incidents of blatant police brutality have occurred in just the past few months that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Mandating the use of body cameras is a joke considering RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s baffling inability to answer a straightforward question about systemic racism in the force. Do we not have mountains of evidence – photos, videos, eye-witness testimony – that demonstrate the severity and totality of police dysfunction in Canada? Why are we expected to tolerate so much more state-sanctioned inhumanity today than in the mid-1990s? Why are we outraged by the symptoms, yet incredulous as to the cause?
Defunding the RCMP will not solve all of these problems, just as disbanding the airborne regiment did not solve the myriad problems within the Canadian Forces. It was nonetheless a move in the right direction. By the time the decision was made, there was no public support left for the regiment. Similarly, public confidence in the police is eroding rapidly, and this is not merely an echo of what’s occurring south of the border.
We have good reasons to be disgusted and horrified by the conduct of our own police. For too many years our reaction to the inherent racism, brutality and overt militarization of American police has been to ignore the incontrovertible similarities here at home. The time has come to distinguish ourselves as a people and demonstrate just how different we can be. We need to start somewhere: defund, disarm and disband the RCMP.
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