Defund the Mounties? Native peoples call for changes to Canada’s policing

Defund the Mounties? Native peoples call for changes to Canada’s policing

It’s hard for Becky Levi to pick a favorite memory of her uncle Rodney.

In the years he lived with her family in northern New Brunswick, Rodney Levi – who they called “Buck” – regularly babysat her two children and acted as a cheerleader after her long days at work with at-risk youth. “He was my biggest supporter,” she says. “You couldn’t meet a nicer guy.”

It’s not hard for Ms. Levi to pick a worst memory. It was June 12, 2020, when they received a call that Buck, a member of the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq First Nation, had been shot by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). He later died of his injuries.

They still don’t know exactly why or how. More than six months later, the Levi family awaits a watchdog report on the events of the day and is pushing to make it public.

The RCMP told local media at the time that they were called to a home to respond to an “unwanted man” and found Mr. Levi with knives and uncooperative. They said they used a taser without effect before fatally shooting him. For the family, there is at least one clear explanation. “Definitely systemic racism – just, you know, he was a native,” says his niece.

Her uncle’s death came 18 days after George Floyd was killed by a white officer in the United States, generating anti-racism protests across the globe. It was eight days after another Indigenous resident of New Brunswick, Chantel Moore, was shot and killed by local police during a wellness check. And it was two days since the commissioner of the RCMP told Canadians there wasn’t systemic racism in her force, generating swift backlash.

As questions over racism in the U.S. dominate global attention, Indigenous and minority families like the Levis seek justice for the discrimination they say they face at the hands of the RCMP, clashing with a popular notion they are guardians of a “peaceable kingdom,” as RCMP historian Steve Hewitt puts it.

The law-and-order West

The RCMP originated as a colonial police force to clear the prairies and settle the West. It has enforced some of Canada’s most violent policies, from driving Indigenous peoples off their land and onto reserves to ripping children from their families to place in residential schools.

Yet the Mounties stand as one of Canada’s strongest national symbols, celebrated in early Hollywood films, says Dr. Hewitt, a historian at the University of Birmingham in England. “There’s a whole mythic cultural aspect to it that also fits with this ‘pat on your back’ notion that some Canadians have of Canada … and so much of that is constructed in opposition to the United States as a lawless, violent West, while Canada is law-and-order West.”

That comparison has long made it hard for Canadians to confront racism, both in the police and society at large, says Kojo Damptey, a musician and executive director at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion in Ontario. During the siege on the U.S. Capitol, many Canadians looked with horror at its southern neighbor. “Folks on Twitter were saying, ‘Thank God we live in Canada,’” he says, “and they shrug off what happens here.” Yet white supremacy resonates here – the Proud Boys, whose founder is Canadian, have members in the country – including inside police institutions, he says.

Between 2007 and 2017, Indigenous peoples represented a third of victims shot to death by the RCMP, but are only 5% of the Canadian population. Various provincial studies have shown disproportional force against Black communities too. “So when the head of the RCMP says there is no systemic racism, that’s a huge, huge problem,” Mr. Damptey says.

Today the RCMP is the main police force in the northern, western, and Maritime provinces, and often the only law enforcement in rural and remote communities. And while they have faced scandals for decades, they’ve been under intense pressure in recent months, first for their handling of Canada’s worst-ever massacre in Nova Scotia in April, and then as the international protests over police discrimination increased. Ms. Moore’s and Mr. Levi’s deaths became emblematic in the Black Lives Matter protests across Canada.

So when Brenda Lucki, the RCMP commissioner, denied systemic racism in the force, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stepped in. “Systemic racism is an issue right across the country, in all of our institutions, including in all of our police forces, including in the RCMP,” he said.

Ms. Lucki was forced to backpedal. A majority of Canadians agree with Mr. Trudeau. In an Angus Reid poll from the fall, 63% say that systemic racism is a serious problem for the RCMP.

This discussion has troubled retired RCMP Superintendent E.C. MacAulay, who served from 1965 to 2001, especially when he thinks of under-resourced members in the field. He says he never witnessed systemic racism, in the sense of one that permeates an entire organization. He acknowledges a problem with excessive use of force in some cases and that minorities are overrepresented in the correctional system.

But Mr. MacAulay does not trace this back to Canada’s colonial roots. “The RCMP and other police are just responding to whatever the situations are and whoever is there, but it’s nothing to do with what [Canada’s first prime minister] Sir John A. Macdonald did,” he says.

“Justice is being able to talk about what happened”

For years, advocates have raised concerns about the structure of the RCMP. Officers rotate through Indigenous communities, with little training on culturally sensitive policing. Advocates say that contributes to dangerous situations, particularly given high rates of mental illness and addiction in these communities, rates that are themselves a legacy of colonialism.

In Buck’s life, these factors played out to tragic effect.

Mr. Levi had struggled with both mental health issues and substance abuse. In June 2020, he relapsed and was struggling. He had just found out he was accepted into a treatment program, but because of the pandemic it was online only. He was worried it wouldn’t be enough support, his niece says. When she heard he was shot, her first instinct was to scold him for getting hurt. “I was just thinking, ‘When he gets out, I’m going to be so mad at him,’” says Ms. Levi, her voice cracking.

That the RCMP is ill-equipped to deal with these situations is not unique to Mr. Levi’s case, says Chief George Ginnish of Natoaganeg First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community in northern New Brunswick. “The RCMP force that is here is understaffed, is underfunded, there’s a lot of really young, green recruits where there’s cultural divides and lack of understanding.”

The New Brunswick RCMP declined to comment on the incident since the Public Prosecution Service is still reviewing a report prepared by the oversight body.

The shootings have fueled a call by First Nations chiefs in New Brunswick for an inquiry into systemic racism in the justice system. They also want more funding for their own resources to lessen dependence on the RCMP, Mr. Ginnish says. “We’ve been fighting with New Brunswick and Canada, about the need for community-based not only policing, but peacekeeping, for mental wellness,” he says.

These are many of the same demands expressed by the larger #DefundThePolice movement, and they hit home in many minority communities. Mr. Levi’s cousin Lisa Levi says she was at the beach with her 7-year-old when she heard about the shooting. Her daughter wanted to go home and barricade herself in their bedroom, telling Lisa, “We’re not going to come out because we have brown skin and the police are going to shoot us.” While non-Indigenous Canadians can choose to acknowledge the problems with the RCMP, Lisa says, “my 7-year-old has to live it – she has to have that fear.”

Lisa says her family’s long wait for even basic answers is emblematic of the gaping divide in front of them. “When you look at justice from a First Nations perspective, justice isn’t locking someone away and throwing away the key. Justice is being able to sit down with a person and talk about what happened.

“And I feel if the RCMP had done that with our family – if they would have sat down with us and explained to us what happened, and why it happened, just to see, is [the officer] sorry? Did he mean to? – it wouldn’t be so difficult. But it’s the not knowing that makes it so hard.”

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