The RCMP was created to control Indigenous people. Can that relationship be reset?
In 2008, Marge Hudson was sent north to Bloodvein First Nation in Manitoba to investigate allegations that one of her RCMP colleagues had sexually assaulted a teen girl.
She says a supervisor called her into the Winnipeg office and told her she had better go — “you know what we want, eh?”
The implication of that meeting was clear, says Hudson, who is from Berens River First Nation: she believed he wanted her to solve the case by clearing the Mountie of any wrongdoing.
A spokesperson for the Manitoba RCMP said it wasn’t aware of Hudson’s allegations. The spokesperson said the investigation was timely, “very thorough,” and highlighted comments made at the time commending the force’s “very admirable job of investigating.”
Benjamin Neufeldt, the Mountie under investigation, pleaded guilty to two sex-related charges: for asking the teenager to touch him sexually and for bringing her to his home while he was on duty and trying to sexually assault her.
Hudson — who left the force a year later and was part of the historic $100-million Merlo-Davidson sexual harassment settlement a few years after that — thinks about that moment now. It’s hard not to.
Last month, APTN News broke the story of an RCMP officer who asked a teenage victim of sexual assault if she was “turned on” during the alleged assault. The officer wondered if maybe the teenager had been responsive, even “subconsciously,” because “you understand that when a guy tries to have sex with a female and the female is completely unwilling, it’s very difficult, right?”
And then, earlier this month, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry released its final report, blunt in its assessment of the famous force:
“The RCMP have not proven to Canada that they are capable of holding themselves to account.”
The Mountie response to the MMIWG report has been to acknowledge reconciliation “is not a single event or action,” to highlight training initiatives — including a “Cultural Awareness and Humility course” currently in the works — and to say it continues to study the report and will give “careful consideration to change.”
And yet, it already feels like more of the same, Hudson says.
“It’s been going on forever and it’s going to continue going on forever because, quite frankly, they don’t really care,” she says. She laughs to herself whenever she sees an official in red serge appear on national news, profusely apologetic and promising to do better.
“OK,” she says, “but that doesn’t make sense. Just go out and do it.”
Can they? It’s a simple question with a complicated answer.
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As Jocelyn Thorpe, a history and women and gender studies professor at the University of Manitoba, explains, the Mounties were created for a specific purpose: to assert sovereignty over Indigenous people and their lands.
“We like to think that having good people in the right places changes things, and I think, to a certain extent, that’s true,” Thorpe says.
“But if the whole system is based on this idea that some people matter more than others, there’s only so much that can be done.”
Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, got the idea for the Mounties from the Royal Irish Constabulary, a paramilitary police force the British created to keep the Irish under control.
There was no coast-to-coast railway yet, and the ink was barely dry on Canada’s purchase of Western Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company, an acquisition that paved the way for western settlement. Macdonald envisioned his own Royal Irish Constabulary, says Steve Hewitt, a senior history lecturer at the University of Birmingham and author of three books about the RCMP’s history — except instead of the Irish, they would control the Indigenous people already living on the land.
Although the North-West Mounted Police didn’t become the RCMP proper until it absorbed the Dominion Police in 1920, its paramilitary origins are still highly visible in everything from its training depot to how it organizes its officers into troops, right down to the horse and the uniform, Hewitt says.
“All of that is not an ordinary police force.”
And while Canadians may like to position ourselves in opposition to the United States, citing their “even worse record in terms of treatment of Indigenous people,” Hewitt says that’s just a myth we tell ourselves to feel better.
The job of the Mounties “effectively, was to clear the plains, the Prairies, of Indigenous people,” he says. “Ultimately, they were there to displace Indigenous people, to move them onto reserves whether they were willing to go or not.”
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History books, commissions, inquiries and public apologies reveal what happened next: Indigenous people who resisted were starved onto reserves. The federal government brought in the Indian Act and used Mounties to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their homes, placing them in residential schools rife with abuse.
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It is no coincidence that when Indigenous people resist, it is the Mounties called into action, Thorpe says.
“Sometimes, the way we talk about history is as if history really is in the past,” she says.
“History is the process through which the structures of our today are set up.”
What exists now is systemic disregard and antipathy, said Anthony Merchant, a lawyer with Merchant Law, which is representing plaintiffs in a proposed $600-million class action against the RCMP and the federal government over their handling of MMIWG investigations.
At the time the suit was filed, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale refused to comment on a case before the courts. He did, however, highlight RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s 2018 apology to families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, in which she promised the force would do better.
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“If an Indigenous family contacted the police and indicated their 16- or 26-year-old daughter, sister, niece had not come home as expected or was missing, the almost invariable reply was ‘perhaps she’s partying,’ ‘is she with her boyfriend’ or anything to avoid undertaking an investigation,” Merchant said in a statement.
The statement of claim is rife with such allegations: Diane BigEagle says that in more than 50 meetings with the RCMP about the disappearance of her daughter, Danita Faith BigEagle — who vanished in Saskatchewan in 2007 and is presumed dead — she felt the officers didn’t listen, didn’t write down any notes and never gave Danita’s case “meaningful attention.” Jennifer Catcheway disappeared the next year in Manitoba. Her family says they, too, were brushed aside, told their daughter was probably off drunk.
The allegations in the proposed class action have not been proven in court.
The MMIWG report tells similar stories underscored by why people continue to see the force’s responses as inadequate — too focused on the “bad apples” rather than the structural issues.
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That’s a common tactic, according to Farida Deif, who does research on policing abuse for Human Rights Watch. The organization has written lengthy reports highlighting alleged Mountie abuse in northern B.C. and Saskatchewan in recent years.
“The response by the police is generally one of denial of the policing abuses taking place, claiming that there are just a number of bad apples on the police force, not a systemic issue, not a structural issue,” Deif told the inquiry.
“They will often drown us in policing protocols and policies to show how advanced they are and how much in line they are with international standards. But our response is always that we’re not really concerned about the policies, we’re concerned about the practice and the implementation of those policies.”
Between the 19th century and the 21st, the North-West Mounted Police became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Royal Irish Constabulary became the Royal Ulster Constabulary; the latter no longer exists.
It was disbanded as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, Hewitt says: “a new police force for a new era of peace.” Hewitt makes the comparison again two centuries later because the Irish force was disbanded as a matter of trust. The Catholic community saw the constabulary as a Protestant force, biased against Catholics. A new force, Hewitt says, “wouldn’t have that sort of history and baggage.”
The RCMP still carries its baggage, the MMIWG report makes clear:
“This historic role of the RCMP has not changed significantly. The RCMP must still enforce present-day discriminatory and oppressive legislation and policies in areas such as child welfare and resource disputes.”
That disconnect between what an Indigenous person expects when they interact with police and the Canadian justice system and what they get is something Omeasoo Wahpasiw has thought a lot about. Wahpasiw, who is Nehiyaw from Saskatchewan and a professor in education and arts at the University of Prince Edward Island, helped author a report for the MMIWG inquiry. One of its recommendations was the decolonization of the justice system.
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It sends a strong message for RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki to appear before the inquiry and to talk about policy changes, Wahpasiw says — “but how is the message getting from those people at the top of a national organization into the communities with detachments with very few people in remote locations?”
She likens it to attending a workshop: OK, you learned something, but how are you actually going to put what you learned into action? If you’re going to read the MMIWG report, don’t start with the recommendations, Wahpasiw says.
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“They’re really important, but so many people shelve recommendations,” she says. Instead, read the “heart-wrenching and devastating” passages that led to the recommendations. Read about the families desperate to ensure their loved one’s safety who were dismissed by the people who were supposed to help them; read about the lingering trauma caused by some northern Mounties’ relationships with Inuit people; read about young girls, like the teenage victim of a sexual assault who was asked by an officer if she was “turned on” during the alleged assault.
This is a historical Canadian issue, Hewitt says, but that doesn’t mean it’s done. It’s an issue for the future, too, he says, one that will likely continue to manifest in confrontations between Mounties and Indigenous people standing firm against pipelines crossing their lands.
Hewitt doesn’t see Canada disbanding the Mounties a la Northern Ireland.
Even if it’s a “tainted image,” Hewitt says, “the symbol is so powerful.”
Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect that Anthony Merchant, not Nadine Covill, provided a statement from Merchant Law.
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