Mistrust, tension continue between police, Indigenous people 30 years post-Aboriginal Justice Inquiry

30 years ago, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry outlined recommendations to improve relations between police agencies and Indigenous people. But community members say not enough has changed, and the relationship is still marred with mistrust and tension.

Michael Redhead Champagne, co-chair of the Police Accountability Coalition, is pictured in this 2018 file photo. He says the relationship between Indigenous people and the police is extremely tense and lacks trust. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

A provincial inquiry report released 30 years ago painted a grim picture of the relationship between police and Indigenous people filled with mistrust, tension and racism. Today, critics say the relationship is still broken.

“The police don’t trust what Indigenous people are saying, and Indigenous people don’t trust what police are saying,” said Michael Redhead Champagne, co-chair of the Police Accountability Coalition.

The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI) was launched in 1988 to determine, in part, whether racism played a role in the police shooting of Indigenous leader John Joseph (J.J.) Harper. 

In March 1988, Harper was walking home in Winnipeg when he was shot and killed by police. 

John Joseph (J.J.) Harper was shot and killed by Winnipeg police in March 1988. The shooting became one of the focal points of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. (CBC)

Harper was unarmed and had committed no crime. Police were in the area looking for someone else when Const. Robert Cross confronted Harper. They scuffled and Cross fatally shot Harper. Twenty-four hours later, Cross was cleared of all wrongdoing.

The final report from the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry confirmed what the Indigenous community already believed: racism played a role in the events that night.

Lack of trust ongoing

Champagne said the conditions today are far too similar, and Indigenous people are either afraid of the police or indifferent, and a fatal encounter like Harper’s could “100 per cent happen today.”

Damon Johnston agrees that the lack of trust is ongoing. Johnston is on the Winnipeg Police Board, but spoke to CBC as president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg. 

“There’s a belief that when we are confronted by police — particularly in more challenging situations — that things will happen that don’t necessarily happen between police and other members of society,” said Johnston.

Decades after Harper’s death, Indigenous people are still disproportionately dying at the hands of the police — something the AJI once hoped would change.

According to Deadly Force, a CBC special report , police in Manitoba killed 28 people between 2000-2020. Seventeen of them were Indigenous.

Police said Hudson was one of five teenagers involved in a liquor store robbery. She was driving a stolen car down Lagimodiere Boulevard when they were surrounded by police, who then shot and killed Hudson. 

Her father, William Hudson, has organized rallies calling for an end to police violence against Indigenous people and people of colour. In January 2020, the unnamed officer who killed Eishia was cleared of wrongdoing.

“I don’t call the police for nothing. I don’t ever plan on calling them,” Hudson said

This sentiment is more common than he’d like it to be, Champagne said. There are many present-day situations where Indigenous people are in danger and could use safety support, but don’t trust police.

“The justice system was not created by us for us,” said Johnston. “It was a system we just had to learn to live with.”

Change has happened, police chief says

The AJI report outlined 296 recommendations for change in an effort to reduce the risk of systemic racism in all parts of the justice system, including police.

It included 50 recommendations specific to policing, such as:

  • Winnipeg police implement attitudinal testing for new recruits regarding issues such as race and racism.
  • Creation of a special unit to investigate police-involved incidents.
  • Review and strengthen cross-cultural education components of all police training courses, with input from members of the Indigenous community, resource persons and recognized experts.
  • Police forces immediately institute employment equity programs to achieve Indigenous representation equivalent to the Indigenous proportion of the Manitoba population.

Winnipeg police would not specifically say if they track their progress on the AJI recommendations.

“Over the last 30 years, the WPS has embodied the essence of the AJI in all aspects of policy and training within our organization,” said Const. Rob Carver in a written statement.

CBC research found that 12 of the 50 recommendations have been partially or fully implemented.

Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth said there’s been “a tremendous amount of change that has occurred in the 30 years since the AJI recommendations came out.” 

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth testified for the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry 30 years ago. He says WPS is considering collecting race-based data. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Smyth was a young constable on duty the night Harper died, and arrived on the scene minutes after Harper was shot. That night has had a lasting impact, he said. 

“The shooting and the aftermath of the shooting was probably one of the lowest points that the police had with the community, primarily the Indigenous community,” said Smyth.

Since the AJI report, police forces in Manitoba began recruiting more Indigenous officers. Currently 11.1 per cent of Winnipeg police identify as Indigenous. At the RCMP, 7.1 per cent of their Manitoba officers are Indigenous. 

Winnipeg police are now required to take cross-cultural training and learn Indigenous history. In 2015, the Independent Investigations Unit was created to probe police-involved incidents like Hudson’s. 

Building relationships

Champagne works with Smyth to help improve the relationship between Indigenous people and police.

“We do have pretty ongoing and solid relationships with many Indigenous people in the community. I speak regularly with the grand chiefs. All of them have my number. If I’ve learned anything about reconciliation, it’s about the relationship and it’s about keeping that relationship going,” said Smyth.

He says he regularly meets with an Indigenous Advisory Council but the members’ names have not been made public.

He doesn’t think the majority of people feel uncomfortable calling police as they handle 500,000 calls a year for service.

“I suspect they’ll always be, you know, a small group of people that they really want no part of the police,” Smyth said.

“Certain groups can certainly amplify that message through platforms on social media, but I don’t really think that represents the larger community, to be honest.”

Currently, the Winnipeg police only collect race-based data for the people they arrest. There is no data documenting how often the police stop Indigenous people, or use force on them.

Smyth says they’re looking into it, and will need to consult with the community before implementing it.

“If we don’t have the race-based data, it’s always going to turn into the ‘police said, the community said.’ And that’s what it is right now: the police are saying that’s not happening and the community is saying it’s happening a lot,” Champagne said.

“And who do we believe? Nobody, because there’s no data,”

Indigenous knowledge is the way forward

The existence of Indigenous-led community safety initiatives tells Champagne that not enough of the AJI recommendations have been implemented.

“If the recommendations of AJI were actually implemented, we wouldn’t have had to have things like Drag the Red or Bear Clan patrols popping up. The very existence of these Indigenous groups is evidence of the failure of police,” he said.

What he’d like to see from police is more restorative justice practices that emphasize healing the harm done and rehabilitating the offender.

“It’s a form of Indigenous knowledge. And if we want to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in any system, I think the answer lies within Indigenous knowledge,” he said.

“I don’t know why we would do anything else.”

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