Aboriginal leaders in British Columbia are calling on the federal government to reform policies that allow the RCMP to investigate itself when allegations of misconduct against its members have been levelled.
The request comes amid a landslide of incidences that have shined a spotlight on strained relations between First Nations and the RCMP in Canada.
Tensions in B.C. are rising over the number of violent incidences between Aboriginal people and the RCMP. Aboriginal leaders are demanding reform.
The First Nations Summit, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), the BC Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN) and the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of BC (NCCABC) expressed shock and outrage on Sept. 29 at an alleged RCMP beating of a 17-year-old handcuffed Aboriginal girl in Williams Lake, and another incident regarding the death of a young Aboriginal man who was in custody in Prince George.
The groups are also expressing their support of the Gitxsan First Nation in its call to the provincial Solicitor General for action following a coroner’s inquest into the 2009 RCMP shooting of Rodney Jackson.
BCAFN Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould said these incidences, and others, support the fact that federal policy reform is crucial.
“It is time for the Solicitor General of BC to take a hard look at Aboriginal people and the justice system in central and northern B.C. We have already had an inquiry into this problem and the Solicitor General needs to take appropriate action and institute necessary changes to policy and ensure policing reform,” she stated.
“There are clearly systemic issues at play, of which these deaths and beatings are only the tip of the iceberg and symptoms of a justice system gone horribly wrong,” said Chief Doug White III of the First Nations Summit political executive. “While investigations into individual incidents are important, it is also critical to launch a global inquiry into these systemic problems,” he said.
“There are two distinct justice systems in B.C.; one for Aboriginals and one for everyone else,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the UBCIC. “As a father and grandfather, I am sickened and disgusted to learn that a 17-year-old girl was handcuffed in the back of a police vehicle and then suffered such horrific injuries after being brutally and repeatedly punched by the arresting police officer,” he added.
“Having the police investigate themselves is not sufficient,” said Hugh Braker, NCCABC president. The fact that RCMP can investigate their misconduct internally does nothing to foster trust between First Nations and law enforcement in B.C.
“There’s been a litany of incidences in B.C. that cause Aboriginal people to be leery of the RCMP,” he said.
“The public, and especially Aboriginal people, see the police as a ‘brotherhood’ that protects one another.” The ‘boys club’ perception is compounded when events like the one in Williams Lake occur.
“Aboriginal people feel that the RCMP and other police forces discount them,” Braker continued.
“The RCMP has a lot of work to do to foster a good working relationship with the Aboriginal people of BC.”
British Columbia’s concerns about RCMP/Aboriginal relations are not confined to provincial borders, however, if recent incidents outside of B.C. tell us anything.
Last month, members from the La Loche RCMP in Saskatchewan made four arrests after a riot ensued Sept. 30. Police estimated 70 people were involved.
The incident began with an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) crash, and the belief by some community members that the RCMP had struck and killed the driver.
The man riding the ATV, who did not die, but passed out at the scene, has made claims that he was struck by police. RCMP, however, say the men traveling on the ATV accelerated around a police truck when RCMP attempted to stop them, rolled the ATV and the driver ended up in the ditch.
Following the accident, police officers were allegedly pelted with beer bottles and followed to the hospital by groups of people that had emerged from house parties in the area.
The angry mob set a police truck ablaze and damaged an ambulance.
Charged in relation to the incident are Deano LaPrise, 22, Fabian LaPrise, 27, and Randall LaPrise, 25.
All three were charged with assaulting a peace officer with a weapon, arson, mischief, obstruction and participating in a riot.
An investigation into this matter continues.
Days after the La Loche incident, the Carrot River RCMP, also in Saskatchewan, laid charges on a 19-year-old member of the Red Earth First Nation. The arrest followed an incident involving gunfire between police and at least one man. Davis Demery Lester Whitehead is facing charges of attempted murder, possession of a firearm and multiple breaches of probation.
As a result of the ongoing investigation, three additional people were arrested in relation to the incident and released without charges.
The investigation is ongoing.
Russ Mirasty, assistant RCMP Commissioner, claims the two violent incidences involving First Nations in Saskatchewan and police are isolated. He said the events shouldn’t represent the relations between the parties.
“I don’t believe these incidents are an accurate reflection of our relationship with the communities we serve,” he said.
“We don’t judge other communities based solely on one or two incidents, and the same standard should apply to these communities,” he insisted.
†”We know these incidents are the results of the actions of individuals and are not representative of the larger community,” he continued. “These are isolated incidents that took place hundreds of miles apart and are not an accurate reflection of what occurs as part of our work in communities across the province.”
Mirasty said the seriousness of these incidents should not be discounted, however.
Of course, we have challenges and our members have a difficult job, but it’s an important job. Our members are working on a day-to-day basis to protect and make our communities safer,” he said.
Mirasty, who is Cree, admits the RCMP can do better at building relationships between police services and the Aboriginal population, but he claims that law enforcers and peace keepers work to establish relationships with each community they serve.
A spokesperson at RCMP National Aboriginal Policing Services in Ottawa also said that relations between First Nations and the RCMP are strong.
“The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has maintained a rich and evolving relationship with Canada’s Aboriginal people over the course of its history, going back to the early days of the Northwest Mounted Police in the 1870s.
“Now, over 140 years later, this relationship continues to flourish as trust between the RCMP and Aboriginal communities continues to grow,” the spokesperson stated.
On Feb. 4, 2010, the RCMP implemented a new policy on external investigations and reviews, the spokesperson added.
Under the policy, the RCMP will request an independent external investigation whenever:
• there is a serious injury or death of an individual involving an RCMP employee, or;
• when it appears that an employee of the RCMP may have contravened a provision of the Criminal Code or other statute and the matter is of a serious or sensitive nature.
The RCMP will refer all matters that meet the established criteria to a provincially or federally established regime to conduct the investigation, where one exists, or to an external law enforcement agency.