I was walking downtown in Williams Lake one day a couple of summers ago when I saw “Henry” pulled over, red and blue lights flashing behind him.
I strolled up to the passenger window and made a stupid joke about him behaving badly again. Henry didn’t laugh, although Henry normally likes to laugh and makes everyone in listening distance erupt regularly.
“Happens all the time,” he sighed.
Henry – impeccably dressed, glasses-wearing, doting father Henry – was guilty of a DWI. Driving While Indigenous.
Another recent time, he was driving with his brother when an RCMP cruiser turned around to pull him over.
“He said I was going under the speed limit and figured I was drinking,” Henry says. “He asked me to get out of the vehicle and walk behind the car. He asked again if I was drinking and I said I haven’t drank for years. The officer said in a disrespectful way, ‘Well good for you. Congratulations.’”
Henry says he has good relationships with other police officers. That was one officer on one day, but it is too often some officer on some day for First Nations, Inuit, Innu and Metis people.
“It’s stupid that it has become normal,” Henry says.
It could have been worse, and has been. Henry was beaten quite badly by two RCMP officers when he was 14. Now in his late 30s, he readily admits he deserved to be arrested. It was a high-speed car chase in his misguided youth.
“I was already out of the vehicle face down with my hands on my head,” he recalls.
“I was kicked in the face while I was laying down, punched and handcuffed. They kept me in city cells for a couple of days and didn’t phone my auntie, who I was living with.
“They were just trying to keep me there until my face wasn’t so swollen.”
That’s three officers of the hundreds, if not thousands, who have crossed Henry’s path. But it’s also a lot of damage, and many – most - of the Indigenous men I know have at least one similar story.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police has set off a chain reaction in the U.S. and Canada that has put a focus on systemic racism within the ranks of police, including the RCMP who police most of British Columbia.
Here in B.C. there is Dale Culver, a member of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’sen nations, who died during his arrest by the RCMP in July 2017. He was suspected of casing vehicles in a parking lot.
Last week the Independent Investigations Office released a report that found “reasonable grounds exist to believe” that two of the officers involved may have committed use-of-force offences and three others may have obstructed justice in the case.
Dale Culver was 35.
It’s important to note that thousands of RCMP and city police are on the streets of our province every day, each one of them making dozens of arrests and traffic stops and responding to dozens of calls.
The numbers speak for themselves. Most police officers in our province are polite, capable professionals who take on one of the most stressful and difficult jobs society has to offer, and do it well every day. It’s a calling.
But as the saying goes, admitting you have a problem is the first step toward fixing it. And that is not what RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki did this week, when she said there is no systemic racism within the national police force.
Of course, it’s not just police and the justice system that dole out all-too-regular reminders of racism to Indigenous, Black and other non-white people.
Chris is 50.
“You know what is the most common racist thing I have faced. People ask me are you Italian? Greek? They cannot fathom that I could be First Nations. The reason they ask, I assume, is that I am intelligent, educated, an elected official, executive director, well-spoken – all these traits that are not associated with First Nations people,” he says.
I am a white person of Indigenous, Irish, Scottish and English ancestry. I’ve experienced the world as a white person, with all of the privilege that goes with it. Not all of my family members can say the same.
They have been followed around department stores. They have lost out on jobs for which they were clearly qualified. They have been shunted into the high school GED program despite being highly intelligent. They have been pulled over by police. They have been imprisoned.
And as a white person, let me assure you that racism is alive and well in Canada. A lot of folks will say a lot of bullshit when they think it falls on a sympathetic ear.
There is an opportunity now for real change. Let’s make it.
Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.
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