RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki says while she believes there is “unconscious bias” among members in the police force, she is “struggling” with the definition of systemic racism and how that applies to the institution of the national police force.
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson on Wednesday, Lucki was asked about the surge in anti-racism protests around the world in response to the outrage and horror at the death of George Floyd, who died after being pinned under the knee of a Minnesota police officer.
His death has since galvanized a global movement calling for institutional changes to eliminate systemic racism and in Canada, police have landed in the spotlight over repeated cases of violence against Black and Indigenous Canadians over the years.
Lucki was asked directly whether she believes there is systemic racism in the RCMP.
“You know, it’s a question I haven’t been struggling with but I have been struggling with the definition of systemic racism and when I think of unconscious bias, there is unconscious bias in the RCMP, most definitely,” she said.
“We live in a society where inequities persist and police are part of that society, so we have a responsibility to promote inclusion and make sure we don’t have that racism.”
“So does that mean you do believe there’s systemic racism in the force or just unconscious bias?” Stephenson pressed.
“I think there’s times when our members don’t act according to our core values, including racism, and when that happens we need to hold those members to account,” Lucki said.
“I can’t say for sure. We put in polices and procedures to make sure we don’t have systemic racism and I think for many of our members are doing great work every single day,” she continued.
“To say systemically that we have racism, I think systemically there’s racism in most organizations and I don’t think the RCMP is immune to that.”
Floyd died after a Minnesota police officer knelt on his neck for close to nine minutes during an arrest, even though Floyd was not armed and was pinned down on the ground.
Three other officers there at the time did not intervene.
All four police officers have since been fired and charged but the death of yet another Black American man at the hands of police sparked a national movement that has since spread around the world.
While there have been some cases of riots and vandalizing — as well as brutal crackdowns by police — the vast majority of anti-racism protests both in the U.S. and in Canada have been peaceful.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared briefly at one such peaceful protest in Ottawa last week and has said it is clear the country cannot condemn the racism in the U.S. without confronting the ongoing institutional racism and discrimination here against Black and Indigenous Canadians.
He has said repeatedly that there is systemic racism in Canada.
Trudeau on Monday also said he wanted to see more Canadian police wearing body cameras to help overcome a lack of trust between forces and the public, calling the cameras “a significant step towards transparency.”
Following that, Lucki’s office said she would be working to get more members of the RCMP outfitted.
The RCMP serves as both the national force and as a municipal force in smaller and remote communities.
There have been repeated cases across the country of Indigenous and Black Canadians dying in police custody over recent years, something family members of those killed as well as anti-racism advocates say has tarnished the ability to trust police.
“There’s been some kind of trust between the people and the RCMP that has been broken and we need to be able to find a way to mend that trust so that there is no issue between any kind of race and the RCMP,” Lily Speed-Namox said in a recent interview with the Canadian Press.
Her father, Dale Culver, was a member of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations in B.C. and died following an encounter with B.C. RCMP in July 2017.
But despite the recognition of how much work Canada has left to do to confront systemic racism, some public officials have rejected the idea that such a thing exists here.
The deputy commissioner for the RCMP in Alberta, Curtis Zablocki, said he doesn’t think there is systemic racism in police forces in Canada, while both Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier Francois Legault have said they don’t think Canada has widespread or systemic racism like what’s been seen in the U.S.
All three remarks have been widely criticized.
One expert says that failure by public officials to recognize systemic racism only makes it harder to fix the problems that exist.
“We are not better than this. We are not better than the U.S.,” Kathy Hogarth, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo’s school of social work, said in an interview with Global News last week.
“For our leaders to say, ‘Thank God we don’t have systemic racism like the U.S.’ is what perpetuates the injustice in our society.”
When asked about the statement by Zablocki, Lucki said she spoke with him earlier on Wednesday to try to understand what he was saying.
“Obviously, I wanted to hear more about what he meant and he explained to me that when he made those comments he was talking to the pervasiveness of racism in our organization,” she said.
“I think we all struggle with the fact there are a lot of members doing a lot of good work, and when there is members that are not doing good work, we need to deal with it.
“But when he talked about not having systemic racism in the RCMP in Alberta, he was referring to the fact that it wasn’t across every corner of our organization.
“He didn’t want to deny that there wasn’t any racism. He just didn’t feel that it was pervasive.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was also asked about Zablocki’s remarks on Wednesday.
She said all federal departments must understand that systemic racism exists in Canada.
“It is very important for all federal government institutions, including the police, to operate from an understanding that systemic racism is a problem for us here in Canada,” she said.
“We know that a really big challenge for our government and for all of us is, first of all, of course, to acknowledge that this systemic racism exists and to take concrete action to work against it and, ultimately, to dismantle it.”
Lucki said she recognizes that the force needs to be able to maintain public trust in order to do its work.
She said anyone who suggests the RCMP isn’t willing to change and confront biases is wrong.
“This is a moment, a big time in history and a big time for police to step it up and the bar is set high, but so are my expectations for my organization and I am so absolutely determined to make the change,” she said.
“I think our actions need to speak louder than our words, and what we do going forward is going to tell our story. I think there is no room to not treat people with dignity and respect.”