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With Prime Minster Justin Trudeau looking on, Brenda Lucki speaks during a news conference at RCMP 'Depot' Division, in Regina, on March 9, 2018.

Michael Bell/The Canadian Press

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki is facing a barrage of criticism for saying there is no systemic racism in the national police force, as the Prime Minister and leaders of Indigenous and Black groups vowed to overcome institutional resistance to change across the country and eliminate discrimination.

At a news conference in Ottawa, Justin Trudeau said there is definitely systemic racism in the RCMP, saying a number of institutions in Canada need to recognize that they are part of a system that puts Indigenous and racialized Canadians at a disadvantage.

“Systemic racism is an issue right across the country, in all of our institutions, including in all of our police forces, including in the RCMP,” Mr. Trudeau said. "Recognizing that is difficult and we need to make sure that we are moving forward in really meaningful ways and that is also going to be difficult.”

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He said he has confidence in Commissioner Lucki – whom he appointed in 2018 – to combat systemic racism in Canada.

“I know Commissioner Lucki and our government and all Canadians are going to be working with racialized Canadians and Indigenous Canadians to do more, to continue the work,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Still, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair spoke with Commissioner Lucki on Thursday, reiterating the government’s position on the need to recognize and tackle systemic racism. The conversation occurred after Mr. Blair issued a statement saying: “Indigenous people, Black Canadians and other racialized people far too often experience systemic racism and disparate outcomes within the criminal justice system.”

In a round of media interviews on Wednesday, Commissioner Lucki disputed the notion that systemic racism exists in her organization and said she is unsure what the expression actually means.

“I have to admit, I really struggle with the term ‘systemic racism,’” Commissioner Lucki told The Globe and Mail that day. “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.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said that former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson had “enough courage” to call out racists in the force and voice his desire to remove them.

In an interview with The Globe on Thursday, Mr. Paulson said he thought it was important to be honest about the situation, at a 2015 AFN meeting, when he was asked about racists in the ranks.

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“There are some and they’re isolated,” he said, adding that there are systemic issues in the organization in terms of dealing with racism.

Mr. Bellegarde said that people in positions of authority should call out the situation for what it is, adding that he has three brothers who worked for the RCMP and encountered systemic racism.

“To me, you can’t deal with racism in any way, shape or form until you start acknowledging it exists,” he said. "And you don’t need to convince myself or anyone else in Canada that racism doesn’t exist. Look at all the studies.”

Systemic racism cannot be denied and it exists in all institutions, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Thursday.

“It isn’t by some magical stroke of fate that the RCMP would be immune to that," he said.

Mr. Miller said he is not going to judge the Commissioner by a series of interviews but he pointed to an apology that Commissioner Lucki delivered to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and her promise to do better.

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Marion Buller, the first female First Nations judge in British Columbia who chaired the inquiry, told The Globe on Thursday that she was conflicted when she heard Commissioner Lucki’s remarks in light of that apology delivered to the commission and the pledge that the force would do better.

Ms. Buller said now is an opportunity for some difficult conversations and for the Commissioner to pledge to dig deep and institute change.

She also said that recent incidents, such as the shooting death of a 26-year-old originally from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, during a “wellness check” in Edmundston, N.B., shows that violence against Indigenous women continues.

“The genocide continues,” she said.

The Green Party’s Elizabeth May called the RCMP a “racist institution” on Thursday, adding that she was choosing her words carefully, suggesting that the issue stemmed from the top down.

Liberal MP Greg Fergus, who chairs a caucus of Black parliamentarians, said he was “baffled” by Commissioner Lucki’s statements on systemic racism. He urged her to speak to experts outside the force, as well as within her organization, to educate herself on the discrimination faced by racialized Canadians.

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“Talk to them and hopefully she will come back, in as public a way, and express what she has learned,” he said.

Mr. Trudeau said Thursday that Indigenous and racialized Canadians are not treated in the same way as “people of privilege” across Canada.

Mr. Trudeau said all Canadians have to recognize that their country’s institutions “have not always treated people of racialized backgrounds, of Indigenous backgrounds, fairly.”

Commissioner Lucki acknowledged on Wednesday that 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 said she is also concerned about the impact of recent controversies over policing tactics in Canada and the United States – 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."

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