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RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki is disputing that systemic racism exists in her organization, a sharp contrast to statements from top Canadian politicians and Indigenous leaders, as well as to a global movement that has galvanized anti-racism sentiment in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

“I have to admit, I really struggle with the term ‘systemic racism,’” Commissioner Lucki told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. “I have heard about five or 10 different definitions on TV. I think that if systemic racism is meaning that racism is entrenched in our policies and procedures, I would say that we don’t have systemic racism.”

Her remarks come as the RCMP and other police forces in Canada face a chorus of calls for changes to better protect racial minorities.

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She said there is “unconscious bias” among certain members of the force and promised that those who don’t adhere to the RCMP’s core principles will be “held to account.” She added that she is concerned about the impact of recent controversies over policing tactics in Canada and the U.S. – which have included violent arrests by Mounties in Alberta and Nunavut – on her 20,000 officers and 10,000 civilian employees.

“I am worried about their resiliency and their mental health, because this is not an easy time to be a police officer,” she said. “When we talk about movements such as Black Lives Matter, it’s challenging for our members to hear negativity if they are in fact living up to our core values.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his top ministers have said that systemic racism exists in Canada as they criticized recent cases of police brutality here and in the United States. Mr. Trudeau and others spoke out about RCMP cases involving Indigenous Canadians that were partially caught on video.

“The reality is that many people in this country simply do not feel protected by the police." Mr. Trudeau said earlier this week. "In fact, they’re afraid of them. That alone would be bad enough, but systemic discrimination and racism in Canada goes much further than just policing. It’s about poverty and mental health. It’s about the fact that people are all too often treated like criminals instead of receiving the support that they need.”

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said earlier on Wednesday that “It is very important for all federal government institutions, including the police, to operate from an understanding that systemic racism is a problem for us in Canada, to not be complacent about that and we have to work together against it,"

The office of Public Safety Minister Bill Blair did not respond directly to a question on Commissioner Lucki’s remarks, but said it is unacceptable that Indigenous peoples, Black Canadians and other racialized communities continue to face systemic racism.

“These communities are more likely to experience discrimination in interactions with law enforcement,” said press secretary Mary-Liz Power. “There is much more work to do to dismantle the systems that perpetuate this racism and we remain committed to doing that work as quickly as possible.”

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Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Commissioner Lucki was wrong in her interpretation of systemic racism in the RCMP.

“Yes, there’s excessive use of force [in the RCMP]. Yes, there’s racism and yes it is systemic racism. And it has to change," he said. “We need to work together to bring about change. To me, you can’t deal with racism in any way shape or form until you start acknowledging it exists.”

Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the landmark Truth and Reconciliation Commission that probed Canada’s residential-school legacy and its impacts, including on policing and the justice system, told The Globe on Monday that people have a significant misunderstanding of systemic racism.

“Some people believe that systemic racism is when everybody in the system is a racist and there is no system where everybody is a racist,” he said.

“Systemic racism is when the system itself is based upon and founded upon racist beliefs and philosophies and thinking and has put in place policies and practices that literally force even the non-racists to act in a racist way. So it is what you would call systematic racism.”

There have been growing calls in Canada and the United States for existing police forces to be dismantled, or at least to see their funding decreased.

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Appointed to lead the RCMP in 2018, Commissioner Lucki said the organization is ripe for further reforms, but needs to continue its operations.

“It’s a great model. It obviously needs to be funded accordingly for all of the different things that we do," she said.

She added that the organization is constantly improving its policies and procedures to ensure that they don’t “disadvantage some groups.”

“If we refer to something like unconscious bias, I think that exists in the RCMP. We are not immune to it and there are times when our members don’t act in accordance to our core values, and that includes racism,” she said.

Commissioner Lucki said the RCMP is willing to “step it up” in the face of widespread calls for changes to police organizations after the death of Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We can’t let his life or any other life go in vain,” she said. “Unfortunately, change often happens not in the good times but in the times where there are challenges. We need to step it up and make those changes.”

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Commissioner Lucki said a series of reforms are currently being developed, from the recruitment and training of cadets to bringing much greater diversity in the upper ranks of the organization. However, she did not provide a timeline for the delivery of new policies or a long-promised culture shift.

“If I could twitch my nose, I would want it happening right now. But some of those are big projects and we have to get it right," she said. “We are a big ship, so we are not a canoe, we are not going to do one stroke of the paddle and be changed overnight.”

She said that recent cases that have generated headlines are under review, including the violent arrest of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam in Alberta and a case in Nunavut in which an Inuk man was hit by the open door of an RCMP truck.

“We are not afraid to be held to account,” she said. “We will do everything possible to increase the trust in all communities, especially in our Indigenous communities where maybe the trust is even lower. We need to connect with the people in the communities, it’s a time for listening.”

NDP public safety critic Jack Harris said in an interview that the Commissioner’s comments on systemic racism demonstrate it will be difficult to confront problems within the organization and that they can’t be resolved one complaint at a time.

“It really just shows how far we have to go for a solution."

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