When Justin Trudeau joined an anti-racism protest on Friday, taking a knee to express solidarity, it was as though he still didn’t know the next step after kneeling.
He had already spoken, in a press conference earlier that day, about the “disturbing” videos and reports of incidents that surfaced last week. He asserted, in earnest Trudeau-esque tones, that although “we can’t solve all this overnight,” change is needed, and “we need to start today.” Yet he didn’t offer any clear notion of what a first step could be.
Those disturbing reports, though, offered at least one obvious place to start: more transparency.
On Saturday, Chief Allan Adam, who leads the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, held a press conference to present grainy videos of the night in March when, Chief Adam said, he was beaten by RCMP officers when they stopped him and his wife over an expired registration for their car.
Chief Adam’s lawyer, Brian Beresh, called for the suspension of one of the officers involved, but what was notable was the basic call for transparency in the other three things he sought.
He called for the RCMP to release their own, clearer video of the incident, taken from an RCMP dashcam. He called for a full investigation by another police force – not the RCMP. And he called for body cameras to be worn by all RCMP officers.
Independent investigations? Public transparency? Body cams? Yes to all of that. Because it’s 2020.
And stats, too – disaggregated race-based statistics, so Canadians can get a sense of who gets arrested over expired registrations.
One thing on Chief Adam’s list, an outside investigation, is now happening. Alberta’s Serious Incident Response Team, which investigates serious injuries and deaths involving the police, said Saturday afternoon that they would review the allegations. The RCMP had previously said they had reviewed their own video of the incident, and that it didn’t meet the threshold for an outside investigation.
That’s a threshold that cries out for scrutiny: If there is video of police using force with a citizen, someone outside the organization should be looking at it.
Doing those things won’t eliminate racial discrimination in policing, let alone dismantle systemic racism in the country, which doesn’t start or end with the police. Body cams don’t prevent all abuses. They just offer the potential for a record.
But if Mr. Trudeau is looking for a place to start, he might start with the obvious: Disturbing events that came to light only because of bystanders taking video on their phones. More transparency is a basic step.
Mr. Trudeau’s government doesn’t hold all the levers on these things. Local policing is a provincial responsibility, even when it is done by the RCMP, and for much of the population, the local police are municipal or provincial forces.
But he does exert control over the RCMP, including appointing its Commissioner. He can demand standards of accountability for incidents that involve the use of force, and that they be reviewed independently. He can fix the broken complaints system for the RCMP – a small reform is already proposed in legislation before Parliament. He can demand that the collection, and publication, of statistics on arrests and charges be disaggregated by ethnic background.
He has federal spending power. A national initiative to have police wear body cameras can be pushed forward with funding from Ottawa. Especially if he moves forward now. He can press provincial premiers to join him in setting basic national standards of transparency.
That is, for starters, what the symbolism of taking a knee demands. You can judge for yourself if you think Mr. Trudeau is sincere or engaged in political play-acting, or some mix of the two, but you don’t have to look further than Donald Trump to see that the opposite symbolism is bad government. Mr. Trudeau chose to acknowledge systemic racism, rather than to deny it.
There is a lot that necessarily follows from that symbolism. But if Mr. Trudeau can’t find a first step now, he can look to the things that should have been done a long time ago to bring a little more transparency to policing.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.