By: Chief Hugh Akagi
There have been historical genocidal acts in Canada. There continue to be genocidal acts in Canada.
The loss of life in the Indigenous population from the time of settlement is real and documented.1 The loss of life incurred during the settlement of the Canadian prairies is documented, 2 as is the use of the Indian Act to both define Indians and limit their number.3 The death rate in Indian residential facilities is documented.4 The use of the police to separate children from families is documented.5 Indigenous communities have been called the “suicide capitals of the world” in court proceedings. Suicide among Indigenous teenagers is twenty times the rate in any other society.
Recent acts appear to be genocidal. There are far too many to be considered outliers. There are far too many witnesses. Regrettably many victims provide evidence posthumously. Their names deserve to be mentioned. Their stories must be told and retold. Among them are Neil Stonechild, Rodney Steven Naistus, and Lawrence Wegner. They can’t tell their stories because they froze to death outside of Saskatoon, most likely left in the cold by police. Darrell Night survived and has told his story.6 These are just a few names. There are hundreds of complaints about this practice of dropping off Indigenous people on the outskirts of town and “the numbers of drop-offs have…shot up…”7
One of the worst instances of the abject failure of the criminal justice system is the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaw man. This conviction “epitomized systemic discrimination and racism…”8 Decades after Mr. Marshall’s release, a Royal Commission investigation revealed unequal treatment, racism, and genocide. But the death didn’t stop. John Simon was shot in his home in Wagmatcook, Nova Scotia in 2008. An inquiry noted poor police procedure, failure to wait for backup, unclear operational planning, and a flawed disciplinary and investigation procedure. Victoria Paul was alert and standing when taken to a Truro police cell in August, 2009. She had been arrested for public intoxication. Three hours later she was lying on the floor, unable to speak. Police didn’t call an ambulance immediately. She was transferred to a hospital and died of a stroke three days later. These are just two cases, widely reported in the news with one thing in common—both victims were Indigenous, and both were subject to police procedure with “shortfalls” and which were “lacking” or even demonstrated “institutional racism.”9 These kinds of individual cases and aggregate statistics are repeated in many other studies. The death of Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg was “facilitated by a lethal form of racism…”10
That lethality continues to manifest itself.11
There are recent cases close to my home and Territory. Forty-eight year old Rodney Levi, was shot and killed by the RCMP in June of 2020.
Metepenagiag First Nation Chief Bill Ward demanded answers. “I can’t justify it. I can’t,” he said of Levi’s death as he wiped away tears during a Facebook live video after the tragedy. Mr. Levi “…had his demons but [was]…always very friendly [and]…never tried to harm anybody.”
Chief Ward said he had spoken to Mr. Levi on the day of the killing and he was in good spirits. The killing took place in Boom Road, about 30 kilometres from Miramichi, NB.
RCMP responded to a report of an unwanted person at a residence. “When police arrived, they were confronted by a man who was carrying knives,” an RCMP spokesperson says. A stun gun was deployed several times but was unsuccessful.
“A member of the RCMP discharged a firearm,” according to a spokesperson, quoted in news reports.
What a way to describe a killing. An “unwanted person” becomes a dead person. The response to a man carrying knives is by police officers firing guns. Isn’t the phrase “discharged a firearm” a way to sanitize a killing by shooting? A five member Coroner’s jury has ruled that Mr. Levi’s death was a homicide. Jurors have many recommendations including the use of Indigenous band constables, not having RCMP as first responders in wellness checks, body cameras on police officers, and more counselling services.
My fellow author Allan Bonner has some experience in relevant areas. He taught regularly at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa, worked for municipal forces in Hong Kong and North America, worked with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) members in their early days, the Communications Security Establishment, the Canadian Forces’ top police officer, the Provost Marshall, the Judge Advocate General, Peacekeepers, and on most Canadian Forces Bases. He also worked on the Taser Project when the British Columbia Police Complaints Commissioner asked the Victoria Police to investigate the 2004 death by Taser of 44-year-old Robert Bagnell whom the Vancouver Police were trying to arrest. This was years before the 2007 death of Robert Dziekański a Polish immigrant to Canada who was killed at the Vancouver Airport.
Allan worked with a police use of force expert. Use of force can mean everything from a police officer walking or driving by, to saying “Move along, Buddy…” through to using a Taser or a lethal gun. Allan says that it’s often failure to use proper police procedure which causes these tragedies. Police can call for back up, use their cars as shields, speak to suspects over a loudspeaker, and use many other de-escalation techniques. Allan studied risk and crisis management in England and heard many stories from patient police officers about de-escalation. One story involved having a smoke and a long talk with a knife-wielding suspect until just the right moment to subdue him. Police in England don’t have a tradition of carrying and using firearms, so they use other techniques.
Allan studied and taught the Martial Arts for more than 18 years. His training included how to defend against a knife attack. It’s dangerous, but possible. How someone is holding a knife is a clue to their expertise. Plus, many good young Martial Artists can easily subdue a much larger person. That’s what they’re trained to do. Some police officers wonder why more don’t try shooting a suspect in the legs. As for Tasers, Allan was tased to learn more about the weapon. He was held up by two officers and tased by a third.
Allan says the Taser is not a perfect weapon and it can be lethal. But its potential lethality is a small fraction of the lethality of a bullet. He also says it would be very rare for the Taser not to immobilize someone. Sometimes a second shot is required, or officers must then physically subdue the person, but moving from Taser to firearm should not be required and should be extremely rare.
The late Chantel Moore, 26, grew up on Vancouver Island but left to live in New Brunswick where she joined her mother and five-year-old daughter, Gracie.
Ms Moore, from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in British Columbia, was shot as police were carrying out a wellness check. Reports say she ran out of her apartment onto a balcony with a knife, threatening the officer, who then shot her.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, speaking during a news conference in Ottawa, said he was “outraged” by the continuing pattern of police violence against Indigenous people in Canada. “I don’t understand how someone dies during a wellness check,” Miller said about Moore’s death, adding when he first heard about it, he thought it was some kind of a morbid joke.
Neither Allan nor I have been to the site of Ms Moore’s killing. Nor are we part of the investigation. But my view is similar to the Minister’s—how does someone get killed in a “wellness check”?
How threatening can someone be from atop a ten-foot balcony? How was she holding a knife? Wouldn’t it be safe to assume the person had only moderate skills with a knife?
Allan has also been in simulations conducted as a joint venture with the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York and the New York Police Academy. Recruits are put through a scenario in which a distressed person, played by an actor, is banging on a garbage can in Central Park and saying that the Devil is in the trash can and must be contained. Recruits are distracted by other actors pretending to be joggers and others passing by. Instructors regularly admonish recruits not to bunch up and appear in threatening stances. The lead instructor puts it this way: “Either you get this person in his limo (an ambulance) to Bellview Hospital, or you read about mistreating the Central Park Drummer on the front page of the newspapers tomorrow.” There’s also concern for the recruits’ safety. They are told to keep their distance. Instructors rightly warn that a trained military person or Martial Artist can wield a stick or use a side-stepping kick to reach an opponent many feet away. But those skills are rare.
There are potential solutions. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell notes the speed with which police officers make decisions in his book Blink. Often these decisions are snap attribution errors that result in tragedy. Sometimes they are a series of poor small decisions which add up to tragedy. We all make mistakes, but those of us who don’t carry a gun, badge, and nightstick make few fatal mistakes.
Mr. Gladwell speaks of how complex and difficult policing can be. He says policing should be considered a profession with the same life and death consequences and training as physicians and lawyers receive. Some thoughtful police officers counter that there’s no lack of training—it’s just the wrong type of training or it is not internalized by officers.
The wrong type of training is what author Rosa Brooks writes about in Tangled up in Blue. Ms Brooks became an auxiliary police officer in Washington, DC in her 40s. Her book contains many humorous scenes including her account of the police academy instructor who does very little instructing but lots of yelling and swearing. She documents the videos and instruction all police officers receive about the dangers of police work. A traffic stop can turn ugly. A senior citizen in her kitchen might reach into the knife drawer for a weapon. A child might be armed. All encounters have resulted in and could result in injury or death to a police officer. Officers are told they have a right to go home at the end of their shifts.
Yet, Ms Brooks also notes that policing is not that dangerous an occupation—not even in the top ten most dangerous. Fishing, hunting, logging, roofing, and many other occupations are more life-threatening than police work. All, including police officers, have signed up for dangerous occupations. But members of the general public and Indigenous people on reserves didn’t sign up for the dangers of encountering police officers. Ms Brooks suggests turning the tables on the right to go home. What if police had in the forefront of their minds that residents had a right to go home? The elderly lady might reach for a weapon and injure or kill the police officer, but that officer had signed up for a dangerous occupation—not to excuse the lady.
Other writers have suggested other solutions. Liability insurance for officers might become too expensive for bad cops who use chokeholds or excessive force repeatedly. Elimination or modification of qualified immunity might result in officers being found more liable in court cases. Ms Brooks’ instructor did offer some sound advice. He was referring to the police shooting of a 12-year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun. Why run alone, gun drawn, towards this boy? Why not call for backup? Why not talk to the boy over the loudspeaker in the police car? Why not take cover behind something, as training dictates. These were not the exact facts of the case of Tamir Rice’s death in 2014 in Cleveland, perhaps a different case. Two officers arrived by car, not having been told by dispatchers that a resident had reported that the gun was probably “fake” and that the boy was likely a juvenile. One officer shot from his moving car. An inquiry revealed that the officer had been deemed emotionally unstable and unfit for duty in a suburban police force, but he did not disclose this fact to the Cleveland force in his application. He was fired. The boy is dead.
Police officers and members of the public will be safer with better police procedures. There’s often no need to escalate or confront. There’s usually time to stay back and assess the danger. There may be family members or Elders who can help. It may not even be police who should be helping—very often it’s mental health workers.
There are many better ways.
- King, Thomas, The inconvenient Indian: A curious account of native people in North America, (Ontario: Anchor Canada, 2012) at 60. Dr. King notes this may have included “upwards of 80 percent of all Native people along the eastern seaboard.”
- Daschuk, James, Clearing the Plains, (Saskatchewan, University of Regina Press, 2019) p. 81 on massacres in the 1870s, p. 127 on the use of starvation, p. 147 on tainted bacon which killed and the withholding of grain, and p. 162 for declining populations.
- King, Thomas, The inconvenient Indian: A curious account of native people in North America, (Ontario: Anchor Canada, 2012) p. 71 on “enfranchisement” which results in the loss of Indian status. He also captures the double mother issue well. This is the process by which if one marries out of “Status for two generations…the children of the second union are non-Status” p. 168. For the version of this occurring in what is now America, see Kathleen Ratteree & Norbert Hill, eds., The Great Vanishing Act Blood Quantum and the Future of Native Nations. This notion is well captured on the back cover in a cartoon. See also David E. Wilkins & Shelly Hulse Wilkins, in Dismembered Native Disenrollment and the Battle for Human Rights document the use of this technique in the Indigenous community itself.
- Talaga, Tanya, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, death, and hard truths in a northern city, (Ontario: House of Anansi Press Inc., 2017) p. 10.
- Talaga, supra note 29 p. 9-10, 62.
- McLean, Candis. ‘Canada’s ugly side: the finding of a Saskatchewan probe into racism against Indians may be horrifying indeed’ (2001) 24:25 Alberta Report, Edmonton, p. 24.
- McMillan, Jane. ‘Still seeking justice: the Marshall inquiry narratives’ (2014) 47:3 University of British Columbia Law Review para 12.
- McMillan, supra note 34 para. 37.
- Palmater, Pamela. ‘Shining Light on the Dark Places: Addressing Police Racism and Sexualized Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls in the National Inquiry’ (2016) 28:2 Canadian Journal of Women and the Law p. 253-284 & p. 254. Note also that “Indigenous women and girls are only 2 percent of the population in Canada, but they represent 16 percent of the women who are murdered or go missing” quoting an RCMP report, p. 255.
- Rotenberg, Cristine. ‘Police-reported violent crimes against young women and girls in Canada’s provincial North and Territories, 2017’ (2017) 85:002-X, Statistics Canada p. 3, 7-8. See also the cases of Helen Betty Osborne and J.J. Harper in Injustice and native people, Apr. 1996, Canada and the World Backgrounder (Vol. 61, Issue 6).
A chapter written by Chief Hugh Akagi (Peskotomuhkati Nation) for the book, Emergency! Quarantine, Evacuation, and Back Again