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Changing the Way Police Do Business Is Imperative for the Indigenous Women of Canada

Lorraine Whitman
Lorraine Whitman
Lorraine Whitman. Photo courtesy of the NWAC.

An opinion piece by Lorraine Whitman, President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Across Canada and around the world, people are broaching the subject of police reform as an aspirational goal — something to be attained, over time, with the prodding of an angry public and the enlightenment of politicians and high-ranking officers.

But for Indigenous women, it is an imperative.

A soul-wrenching vision has haunted me since the morning of June 5 when we learned that Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Tla-o-qui-aht/Nuu-chah-nulth woman, had died the night before in Edmundston, NB.

It is the vision of her slight and lifeless body lying on the floor of her apartment building surrounded by the police who killed her — police who had been dispatched to conduct a “wellness check.” Media reports say she was shot five times. They say she was armed with nothing but a knife.

Chantel died as protesters were marching in the streets of America to demand change after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in Minneapolis.

She died days before a video surfaced of Chipewyan First Nations Chief Allan Adam being brutally tackled to the ground by RCMP in Alberta. She died a little more than a week before RCMP in New Brunswick shot and killed Rodney Levi, a First Nations man suffering from mental-health issues.

And in another awful juxtaposition of events, she died the day after the first anniversary of the release of the report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Gender Diverse people, and a week after the federal government admitted it has not created a promised action plan to address the Inquiry’s Calls for Justice (PDF, 659 KB).

Police have been implicated in some of those killings — the starlight drives that saw Indigenous women taken out of town in the back of a cruiser on freezing nights and left to die of exposure. Police were also implicated in shoddy investigations over the decades that resulted in little response when Indigenous families reported the disappearance of a loved one, and only slightly more interest when that loved one turned up dead.

Despite the historical wrongs and the recent tragedies, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) does not want to abolish the police, nor does it brand all officers as racists. As Indigenous women, we know all too well how unfair it is to be painted with a single brush.

But it is time for change.

We want to stop asking “what would have happened if better protocols had been in place?” We want to start making the necessary revisions to policing in this country.

The report of National Inquiry, which directs a number of its Calls for Justice at police forces, informs the best way forward.

I have arranged to meet in July with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki. In preparation for that meeting that meeting, NWAC sent a letter to her on Tuesday, and also to all of the provincial and federal ministers in Canada who are responsible for policing to demand three reforms that find their basis in the Inquiry’s recommendations.

We ask that all front-line police officers be equipped with body cameras.

We ask that “shoot-to-kill” orders be revised to make non-violent apprehension the imperative when suspects are not brandishing firearms, and to better train officers in de-escalation of potentially dangerous situations.

And we ask, as have so many others in recent days, that some of the duties currently performed by police when called to deal with an Indigenous person who is suffering from a mental-health issue be turned over to social workers, health professionals or elders. Those people, trained in de-escalation rather than use-of-force, should be on the front lines 24 hours a day.

And, finally, we ask Commissioner Lucki to join with NWAC and other Canadian police forces to form a task force that will rewrite the relationship between police and Indigenous women.

These measures would start to make life safer for Indigenous people. More change must follow.

We want culturally appropriate protocols that will keep our women, girls and gender diverse people safe, not just from street killers and other assailants who have targeted them as prey, but from the police themselves.

Lorraine Whitman is President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

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