Discrimination within Canada’s criminal justice system is abhorrent, unacceptable and unlawful and related police misconduct is indefensible and must be addressed, the federal public safety minister said Tuesday as demands continue for a broad overhaul of policing in Canada.
But Bill Blair — the former Toronto police chief who has grappled many times with allegations of racism in policing ranks — said at the same time, more must be done to eliminate the social inequalities underpinning racism.
Blair appeared in front of reporters Tuesday in the wake of widespread protests across the U.S. and Canada demanding an end to the fact racialized communities often suffer harsher treatment at the hands of police than white people do.
The outcry was spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis in late May, but in recent days numerous reports of quickly escalating violence between Canadians and police have begun to surface. That has included allegations of the RCMP appearing to mishandle interactions with Indigenous Peoples.
In one, there’s a graphic video showing an RCMP officer in Nunavut ramming the door of his car into a man walking along the road in Kinngait.
In a second, police went to check on the well-being of 26-year-old mother Chantel Moore in Edmundston, N.B., last Thursday evening, and ended up shooting and killing her.
The two incidents prompted Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to say last week he was “pissed” and “outraged” over the situation and full accountability was required.
Blair said Tuesday he shares Miller’s concerns. He pointed to ongoing efforts to put in place a legislative framework governing the relationship between the RCMP and Indigenous groups that would create more accountability.
“We’re absolutely committed to providing every part of this country with professionally and culturally competent policing but also policing that is worthy and trusted by a community to provide those services in an appropriate way, in a bias-free way, in a professional way,” he said.
“I do not in any time accept any potential misconduct of police officers.”
In 2015, then-RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson acknowledged there are racist officers in the RCMP, and he wanted them gone. It was a surprising admission, made at a gathering of the Assembly of First Nations. It also came just as the newly elected Liberal government announced a public inquiry into the thousands of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Indigenous leaders and families of victims had long criticized the RCMP for failing to handle those investigations properly because the missing people were First Nations, Metis or Inuit.
Conflict between the RCMP and First Nations was a running theme in the subsequent report from the public inquiry, but whether the Liberals will move to address those issues in their response plan is unknown. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed its release.
Meanwhile, the civilian review and complaints commission for the RCMP continues to work on its own review of the RCMP’s bias-free policing model, an investigation that began in 2018. The report is to be delivered to the RCMP next year.
Blair was asked Tuesday whether the fact that Indigenous Peoples continue to make up a third overall prison population in Canada is an example of systemic racism in policing.
“Discrimination on the basis of race or any other form or bias is not only abhorrent and unacceptable, it’s unlawful, it’s contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it’s contrary to the Canadian Human Rights Act,” he said.
“It is something that cannot be tolerated within policing or corrections or any aspect of the justice system.”
Some advocates for justice reform have called for a complete rethink of how policing is funded in Canada, suggested money be taken out of police budgets and put into community programs to address issues including mental health and addiction.
“It’s not a zero-sum discussion,” Blair said Tuesday.
“Every part of the country also deserves professional and culturally competent and accountable policing services but every part of the country also needs to ensure that we address those social conditions that give rise to injustice, that give rise to disparate outcomes that cause people to suffer.”
Blair wrapped up 10 years as the head of the Toronto police with a mixed legacy on race relations.
While he’d started the job with a commitment to improve the diversity of the force, he ended it mired in a debate over a practice that saw officers randomly stop people on the street and check their identification.
The practice, known as carding, was denounced as being a measure of racial profiling, as studies suggested Black people, as well as other visible minorities, were more often stopped by police.
Blair broadly defended the street checks, saying it worked to catch criminals, though he would later suggest tweaks to prevent officers from using race as a factor to stop someone.