In the wake of an alarming number of recent racist incidents in Edmonton, police say it’s likely there are also frequent incidents against the city’s Indigenous community that are largely going unreported.
The recent concerning incidents include reports from five Somali-Canadian women, all wearing hijabs, who were attacked or threatened in the city in the last 10 weeks.
Another racist incident involved a protest held in Edmonton on Feb. 20 that saw participants marching with tiki torches — which are viewed by many as a symbol of racism after they were used by white nationalists during a notoriously violent and deadly weekend in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
Edmonton police have condemned the racism. But on Wednesday, during a Facebook live on hate crimes in Edmonton, officials said police statistics show while there has been a recent increase in incidents towards Black citizens — there are likely many incidents happening against First Nations people that aren’t being reported.
“Statistically, of recent (incidents) it’s been the Muslim community,” said Sgt. Gary Willits with the hate crimes and violent extremist unit.
“The hatred, though, towards one identifiable community is hands down, the last several years… the Black community. A lot of offenses against the Black community.
“Statistically, I don’t have the proof to show this… but (incidents also against) our Indigenous population,” Willits said.
“(They’re) highly victimized, I see it, I hear it. But we’re not getting the reporting.
“I don’t know if that’s because of the mistrust toward police. I don’t know if that’s something that’s been normalized because it’s been going on for generations,” he said. “But our Indigenous community, it’s happening frequently. We’re trying to work on that, because we need that reporting, we need people to come forward.”
Eleanor VanGunst, mental health counsellor with the Edmonton Native Healing Centre, says she believes that mistrust is a fact of life that has been present for generations.
“It’s more multi-factorial than just mistrust,” VanGunst said. “The RCMP was created in order to assist with implementation of the Indian Act.
“Many, many years of that history, the RCMP may be further away from that history than they originally were, but there is still the mistrust of that particular institution or system,” she said.
“The other thing is, through many years of inter-generational trauma, people have maybe not had the best response when they did ask for assistance. So it has reinforced in them the behaviour of not asking for assistance, because no one has ever really helped them, so why bother?”
VanGunst added that she’s heard, through her work at the centre — which offers community support and services to First Nations people in the city — the majority of interactions with police that her clients have are negative.
“A lot of times that we see Edmonton police, is if they’re looking for somebody,” she said. “And that could be due to crime, or that (the person has not been) located for a number of days.”
VanGunst added that many of her clients report incidents directly to her through their counselling sessions.
“Because this is a safe space to people to speak, we will often hear about how (clients) were unfairly treated — targeted, followed in stores,” she said.
“We get to hear an awful lot about how they’re not happy that this has occurred, but nobody seems to really do much about it in follow up.”
She also believes outreach would be a difficult task for officers.
“(Police are) not so much coming in to just sit and chat with the people. I think part of that is their thinking, is they don’t want to traumatize the participants that come here.
“Using Indigenous officers to help bridge the gap — that might be helpful.”
In 2018, the Edmonton Police Service launched a Indigenous Community Engagement Strategy that aimed to develop positive community partnership.
Then in late 2020, the force announced it would be creating a new Indigenous advisory council to help address the inequities and barriers Indigenous people face in the city, and develop and implement the best policing practices to address those challenges.
Willits said in the short term, he believes reporting an incident is imperative.
“We need people to report. We need people to know you have a voice, you have value and we want to hear from you,” he said.
VanGunst said her recommendation for all Edmontonians is to educate themselves on the barriers being faced by marginalized communities.
“For people to not just look at somebody who is marginalized and Indigenous and assume the worst of them,” she said. “Educate yourselves on what may have brought that person to where they’re at this moment. Have a little more empathy for the many, many generations of trauma that person is carrying with them.”