Police officers must be better trained on de-escalation tactics and screened for racist attitudes, says Senator Murray Sinclair, who was Manitoba’s first Indigenous judge.
After a string of recent high-profile cases involving police and Indigenous peoples, Mr. Sinclair told The Globe and Mail on Monday that some police officers do not know how to go about de-escalating situations and may be afraid to do so.
He pointed to a case he heard as a judge in which police responded to a young Indigenous man wielding a knife.
Mr. Sinclair said he praised one of the officers on the call for finding a way to block the individual’s movements while other officers threatened to shoot him if he didn’t drop the knife, even though there were children at a nearby school.
He learned, however, through lawyers, that the officer who had tried to block the man’s movements had been disciplined and told he had put his life as well as the lives of other officers and the public in danger.
“That told me that the people who were training him had no understanding of how to de-escalate a situation,” he said. “And that’s still the case today.”
Mr. Sinclair also said police officers should be tested on how they react to and feel about situations before they are put out on the streets.
“I think what we need is to start testing people for racist beliefs,” he said.
Canada has faced increased scrutiny in recent days over police conduct, including after a recent allegation by a First Nations leader from Alberta who said he was beaten by police over an expired licence plate.
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation told The Globe on Friday he was brutally beaten by Mounties and his wife was manhandled after they left a casino-nightclub in Fort McMurray, Alta., in March.
In Nunavut, both independent and internal investigations are under way after a video captured an Inuk man being struck by the door of a truck driven by an RCMP officer.
And in New Brunswick, Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old originally from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation near Tofino, B.C., died after being shot five times by an Edmundston Police Force officer performing a “wellness check” on her.
Political opposition leaders in New Brunswick said Monday that Ms. Moore’s death increases the need to modernize oversight of the province’s police forces, improve training and establish an independent police watchdog to handle cases where people are injured or killed by officers.
New Brunswick currently uses civilian watchdog agencies from Quebec or Nova Scotia to investigate injuries or deaths by police, something that critics say leaves the province with the inability to conduct timely investigations.
“Chantel Moore’s family deserves answers, and they deserve them in an efficient manner, and we should not have to rely on an agency from another province to do that,” said David Coon, leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick.
Recent cases involving Indigenous peoples and police echo experiences that have been raised far too often and date back generations, said Mr. Sinclair, who chaired Canada’s landmark commission on the legacy of residential schools.
He said one of his observations is that when specific incidents come to light governments and public institutions have learned how to say the right words and appease the public.
Then they don’t act, he said, and the anger dissipates.
“I suspect there will still be an effort on the part of the government to appease, to order inquiries or to say we will do it, we will hire better officers, we will give them training,” he said.
"People forget that I chaired an inquiry back in 1990, in Manitoba, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, which was about a murder of a young Indigenous woman in The Pas and the shooting of an Indigenous leader on the streets of Winnipeg for no reason.”
The public needs to recognize it has to maintain continuing pressure around the issue, he added.
“The civil-rights movement in the sixties was an example of the public rising up against government inaction,” Mr. Sinclair said.
As a young person growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Sinclair said he would often see Indigenous men and women being assaulted and abused at large gatherings and that Indigenous people were encouraged not to react to it.
“We are at the point now where I think people are not going to take it any more."
With a report from Greg Mercer in Halifax
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