Aboriginal civilian groups that would oversee police actions are long past due in Canada, says a commissioner who served on the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Michele Audette says it’s been obvious for decades that the way police are held accountable is failing Indigenous people and other communities of colour.
“It is urgent, very urgent, that we have a civilian body,” Audette said in an interview with The Canadian Press from Montreal.
For three years, Audette listened to testimony from Indigenous families and experts. She recalls stories about crime victims not being supported or families not taken seriously when a loved one disappeared. Some spoke about not knowing where to turn if they alleged police were the perpetrators of harm.
The inquiry’s final report was delivered to the federal government in June 2019. It included 231 “calls for justice” — many of which included police reform and increased oversight.
It urged federal and provincial governments to establish Indigenous civilian bodies in all jurisdictions to oversee investigations into cases involving Indigenous people.
Nothing happened, Audette said.
A spokesman for Public Safety Canada, which is responsible for policing and police oversight, said the government is working to address the inquiry’s report and there have been meetings with Indigenous leaders about Indigenous policing.
“While still early days, it can be expected that questions around effective civilian police oversight and the relationship between Canada’s Indigenous population and police services will surface and will need to be carefully assessed as work progresses on this mandate commitment,” Tim Warmington said in an email.
Ian McLeod, a federal Justice Department spokesman who could not speak to police oversight specifically, said there is a lot more work to do when it comes to supporting Indigenous people.
“We will continue working with First Nations, Inuit and Metis people, and with provincial, territorial and municipal partners to respond to the (inquiry’s) calls for justice,” he said in an email.
There are specialized services for Indigenous victims and the government also provides support to community-based programs and family liaison units, McLeod said.
Audette said the tide has started to turn with rallies demanding police reform after the death of George Floyd, a Black man in the United States. A police officer trying to arrest Floyd knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, even as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe.
There are many recent stories about Indigenous people dying during encounters with police.
Three Indigenous people — Eishia Hudson, 16, Jason Collins, 36, and Stewart Andrews, 22 — were killed by Winnipeg officers over a 10-day span in April. The province’s independent police watchdog is investigating.
In Toronto, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black-Indigenous woman, fell to her death from her balcony in May after police went to her apartment. Her family criticized Ontario’s Special Investigation Unit for clearing the officers of wrongdoing and its finding of no “overt racism” in their actions. Of that unit’s 52 investigators, two are Indigenous and three are Black.
In June, two Indigenous people died in encounters with police in New Brunswick, including 26-year-old Chantel Moore, who was shot after officers were called to do a wellness check. Quebec’s independent investigation unit was brought in to look at the circumstances of Moore’s death.
Not a single investigator in that unit is Indigenous.
Audette said it shows the need for Indigenous oversight of such investigations.
“Even if you are a good person, it’s just the structure, the culture and systemic discrimination or racism,” she said. “Let’s break this by having a civilian body.”
Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said First Nations people in his province have been calling for reform for decades. He pointed to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, which investigated the brutal murder of Helen Betty Osborne near The Pas in 1971 and the fatal Winnipeg police shooting of John Joseph Harper in 1988.
The shooting of Harper was originally ruled an accident, but the inquiry said the officer used excessive force.
No one was convicted in Osborne’s death for 16 years. It was concluded that the most significant factors prolonging the young Cree woman’s case were racism, sexism and indifference of white people.
“Fundamentally, the missing piece is there is not enough of a political will and there’s not enough of a desire for the institutions to truly address these issues,” Dumas said.
He said he must remain hopeful the current push for police reform will finally lead to action.
“The only recourse, really, is to have an independent objective First Nations perspective on oversight of these issues.”