Dashcam footage of the RCMP’s arrest of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam in Alberta shows that capturing such incidents on camera isn’t enough to address issues of systemic racism in the policing of Indigenous communities in Canada, experts say.
Chief Adam was arrested outside a casino in Fort McMurray, Alta., by RCMP officers early on March 10. A RCMP dashboard camera recorded the events and the footage was filed as a court exhibit on Thursday.
The nearly 12-minute video shows the back-and-forth between Adam and an RCMP officer leading up to the arrest, which culminated with a second police officer running into view and tackling Adam to the ground.
“It’s horrific and it’s barbaric,” said Lori Campbell, a two-spirit Cree/Métis and director of the Waterloo Indigenous Students Centre.
Before the release of the video, Adam had held a news conference to publicize his arrest — the latest in a number of violent police confrontations with Indigenous people that came to light in recent weeks.
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he wants police to be equipped with body-worn cameras to help overcome what he said was public distrust in law enforcement.
He added he had raised the issue with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki.
Lucki later announced she would “engage in work and discussion… on a broader rollout of body-worn cameras” to in an effort to increase trust between the national police force and the communities it serves, as well as boost accountability and transparency.
Chad Haggerty served for 17 years in the RCMP in Alberta and now works as a student-at-law in criminal defence in Calgary — the only city in Canada to have equipped all its front-line officers with body cameras.
From a legal perspective, he said body-worn cameras are “indispensable” and “the best tool” the public has right now to ensure appropriate conduct by police officers.
But he added those cameras may not prevent improper conduct from occurring.
“It may not stop them from the terrible things that they’re going to do, but it certainly allows us to go back and examine the propriety of their actions,” he said.
Campbell said that’s exactly what she took away from watching the footage of Adam’s arrest, saying the presence of the dashcam didn’t “stop the outcome of what occurred.”
“It doesn’t matter whether there’s cameras there or not,” she told Global News.
Campbell argued the cameras haven’t been proven to accomplish what many advocates originally thought they would — which was to serve as a deterrent. Several studies conducted on use of body-cameras have concluded the cameras have had no measurable impact on police behaviour, but others have found some benefit.
“For police services now who haven’t been using the body cameras in Canada to decide that that is going to be their next proactive reform decision to make and to spend money on, we already know it’s not working, so they don’t need to do that,” Campbell argued.
“All it is doing is filming essentially this violence porn against Black and brown people that people are now watching. And every time we see it, it’s devastating and trauma-inducing.”
In recent weeks, video footage also circulated of an RCMP officer hitting an Inuk man with the door of a moving truck during an arrest in Nunavut. Days later, Chantel Moore, an Indigenous woman from B.C., was shot dead by police in Edmundston, N.B.
RCMP created to control Indigenous people
The RCMP as an institution was never built to keep Indigenous communities safe, Campbell said. Rather, it was used to confine Indigenous peoples on reserves and clear the way for western settlement.
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.
“He decided that instead of it being too expensive to send military out west, that he would form his own essentially Royal Irish Constabulary, but he called it the North-West Mounted Police,” Campbell said.
“He enlisted 200 men and sent them out west to contain the Indigenous peoples and to surveil them and to protect settlers from Indigenous people.
“Then, of course, later that becomes the RCMP and that is still who polices and surveils and confines us in our communities.”
During the years residential schools were in operation, it was RCMP officers who were tasked with going into Indigenous communities and forcefully removing the children, added Gabrielle Lindstrom, an assistant professor in Indigenous Studies with Mont Royal University’s department of humanity.
“The RCMP are definitely part of the colonial legacy and play a huge role in that. And they continue to play a huge role in that today,” Lindstrom said.
Because of this history, many Indigenous people grew up fearing police and have a visceral reaction to the sight of law enforcement, said Reuben Breaker, an elected councillor with the Siksika Nation, east of Calgary.
“I don’t drink or do drugs or anything like that, but nonetheless, the image of a police car… there’s automatic fear and guilt because that’s what we associate with the RCMP,” he said on Friday.
“In our language, they’re called Inakiikowan. That means people that capture.”
Breaker told Global News seeing the video of Adam’s arrest “automatically brings anger” to Indigenous people.
“It’s so common,” he said, speaking from Strathmore, Alta.
“That has happened in many communities for many, many years. But it just has gone unreported or unresolved.”
Today, Indigenous people are over-represented in Canada’s corrections system. The federal prison ombudsman sounded the alarm about this earlier this year, warning that the proportion of Indigenous people in federal custody had reached a record high of more than 30 per cent due to entrenched imbalances.
After backlash, RCMP acknowledges systemic racism
As outrage mounts across Canada about the treatment on Indigenous people, one first step is for RCMP leadership to acknowledge there is systemic racism within the national police force, Campbell and Haggerty argued.
The RCMP’s deputy commissioner in Alberta was criticized this week for denying systemic racism existing in the force. In a later interview with Global News, Lucki, for her part, said she believes there is “unconscious bias” among members in the police force but that she’s “struggling” with the definition of systemic racism and how that applies to the institution of the RCMP.
She walked back those statements on Friday afternoon, after Trudeau contradicted her and others criticized her comments.
“I did acknowledge that we, like others, have racism in our organization, but I did not say definitively that systemic racism exists in the RCMP. I should have,” she wrote.
“As many have said, I do know that systemic racism is part of every institution, the RCMP included. “Throughout our history and today, we have not always treated racialized and Indigenous people fairly.”
RCMP media relations declined Global News’ request for an interview with Commissioner Lucki about the released video of Adam’s arrest on Friday.
The deputy commissioner in Alberta also backpedalled on his comments in a press conference late Friday.
Cultural, structural changes needed in RCMP, experts argue
After an acknowledgement, “changing the behaviour of race-based policing is going to require … a cultural shift within the RCMP,” Haggerty argued.
Accomplishing that requires concrete action, he and Campbell agreed.
In the immediate future, Campbell said a good place to start would be the release of the delayed federal action plan, promised in response to the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
That report stated: “The RCMP have not proven to Canada that they are capable of holding themselves to account.”
But given the foundations on which the RCMP was built, Campbell is not optimistic the massive police service can be appropriately reformed and instead favours defunding the force and reallocating the resources.
Instead of investing in body cameras, Campbell argued, “take that money and invest it in things like social services, child services, community programming, mental health supports, social workers.”
In her statement on Friday, Lucki said the RCMP is focused on “thoughtful action.”
“We now have the opportunity to lead positive change on this critical issue. It is time to double down on these efforts — there is so much more to do,” she said.
“There is no one answer, no single solution, no one approach. It is the ongoing commitment to work and continue to learn that will help us make real progress and I am motivated and determined to make change.”
— With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly, Heather Yourex-West, Jane Gerster, Mercedes Stephenson, Phil Heidenreich the Canadian Press and Reuters