Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada is having a hard time convincing Native people in this country that things are improving. In last issue of Fire This Time, I wrote about how the Conservative government has not only failed in its relationship with Indigenous people in Canada two years since he held his theatre of an apology for their treatment in Canada’s residential schools, but that the general conditions for Indigenous people have deteriorated even more. Over the last few months, more incidents and facts have been made public that have shown that not only is there statistically a worsening situation for Native people in Canada, but this country’s institutions have proven to be undeserving of Indigenous people’s trust and respect.
A recent incident involving the Thunder Bay Police has reminded us once again of the deep systemic racism against Indigenous people, and the inability of state institutions, like the police, to address them.
On August 29th in Thunder Bay, Ontario, a 65-year old Native man, Adam Yellowhead, was found dead, murdered in a known drinking spot. After the suspected killer was later arrested, the lead investigator for the Thunder Bay Police Service wrote a fake press release, which he had intended to circulate among the police force, but accidentally sent out to the media. The investigating officer titled the press release as “Fresh Breath Killer Captured!!!” This was followed by the word ‘SCPOE’, a misspelling of the word SCOPE, a brand of mouthwash. The whole document was an obvious reference to the racist stereotype of Native people drinking mouthwash in order to get drunk. After the damage had been done, the officer retracted the press release and sent out a corrected one. When questions were raised by the family, Indigenous organizations and concerned community members, the police announced that it had launched an internal investigation in the matter, but did not find that racism was involved. The Mayor of Thunder Bay joined the discourse by defending the police force. An ex-police officer himself and current member of the Police Service’s Board, Mayor Keith Hobbs told CBC News that the media was “making something out of nothing,” dismissing the incident as “a joke between detectives, it should have stayed in house. It has nothing to do with race.” Apparently to him, the racist actions and behaviour of members of the Thunder Bay Police are OK as long as they stay ‘in house’!
A family already devastated by the murder of a loved one was left with the humiliation that the police publicly reduced his life to a mouthwash-drinking nobody. Facing nothing but denial from the Thunder Bay Police and the city’s mayor, the Eabametoong, Nibinamik, and Namaygoosisagagun First Nations from northwestern Ontario launched a human rights complaint against the Thunder Bay Police as well as the Mayor of Thunder Bay for their treatment of this extremely sensitive and damaging situation. The complaint, supported by Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) and other First Nation organizations, is seeking change in the Thunder Bay Police force. The mayor now refuses to comment and the Thunder Bay Police have expressed that they are “disappointed and discouraged” by this human rights complaint. While the Thunder Bay Police Force is now dealing with this public relations issue, there are bigger questions facing the Native population of that city. How can they expect fair treatment, or even help, from the Thunder Bay police when they are dehumanized by them in public, or even ‘in house’?
Alarmingly, this treatment is not limited to just the Thunder Bay Police Force. In fact, looking across the country, the unfair treatment and outright abuse of Native people by the various police forces is the norm. Some higher profile cases have brought this to light. In 1990, Neil Stonechild, a 17-year old Cree teenager was beaten and dumped on the outskirts of Saskatoon where he froze to death in the -28°C winter night. The truth surfaced only after another Native man survived the ordeal and went public about these ‘Starlight Tours’, as the police referred to them, that had been targeting Native men for a number of years. There is also the case of Frank Paul, the Miqmaq man who was dumped by members of the Vancouver Police Department, unconscious and in his wet clothes, in an East Vancouver alley where he froze to death in 1998. Dudley George, an unarmed Ojibwa activist was gunned down in a raid by the Ontario Provincial Police during a standoff at the former Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995. But, we have to ask: how many acts like this are taking place across the country that don’t get investigated or leaked?
Who is Violating Whose Rights?
This gross violation of Indigenous people’s dignity and trust is nothing new. Dehumanizing Native people to the level of savages was one of the ways European colonizers, and then Canada, made acceptable their wars, displacement and genocide of Native people throughout this land’s history. To reduce a race of people to a sub-human level makes it more palatable for mainstream society to accept their treatment. So goes the story of Canada, its reservations and its residential schools and Native people have suffered in every chapter. Today, Canada’s colonial policy of taking the land and resources from Native people continues, and so do the racist institutions working against them.
Native women: Marginalized
The consequences of the legacy of mistreatment are clearly shown in a recent report commissioned by Canada’s Public Safety Department. The 62-page report, ‘Marginalized’, put together by the Wesley Group, has found that the swelling ranks of Indigenous women in the federal prison system are ‘nothing short of a crisis.’ The report outlines the bleak picture facing the many Indigenous women in the federal correctional system. According to the report, over the last ten years, the representation of Aboriginal women in the prison system has increased by nearly 90 per cent, making them the fastest growing offender group. While Indigenous people account for just four per cent of the population in Canada, one in three women in the federal correctional system is Aboriginal. The report references the root causes of the high levels of dysfunction among Native women to the history of colonization and the damaging effects of the residential school system, and the current ‘oppressive government policies and laws,’ exploitation, violence and racism.
While the report declares that ‘aggressive action must be taken now,’ it doesn’t show much faith in Stephen Harper. It states that the Conservative government’s agenda of stiffer sentences and harsher measures for prisoners “will only serve to further increase the numbers (of imprisoned aboriginal women) and worsen the already staggering injustice experienced by aboriginal peoples as a whole.” It further states that ‘…it is highly unlikely that the issues of such a marginalized population will receive the attention and resources necessary to even begin to address the multitude of issues…Furthermore, given the political climate of late there is no indication that effective change for aboriginal women in corrections will occur any time soon.”
So, once again, Canada is failing Native women. Not only has it let the disappearance and murders of more than 600 Native women in this country go without a proper investigation, but it doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that its prisons are filling up with them!
Canada, A Colonial State
At the heart of the issue is Canada’s colonial nature which has not changed since Canada’s founding. As long as Canada continues its policy of aggression against Native people by taking their lands and resources, and denying their self-determination, we are going to continue to see Native people pushed to the fringes, under-represented in society, and over-represented in Canada’s prisons and institutions. The systemic racism that Native people face in dealing with police, the legal system, and every institution in Canada is unacceptable for anyone, let alone a people who maintained a civilization for thousands of years before immigrants came to this land. It is Canada’s shame and a responsibility of anyone fighting for social justice on this land to take on to change.
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