RCMP Reconciliation efforts? Addressing a legacy of furthering colonization
With the release of the final report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in December 2015 and the marking of 150 years of Confederation in 2017, conversations about colonization and reconciliation have come more to the fore of public awareness and dialogue. Land disputes and protests against industrial development projects have been met with frontline opposition and intervention by police forces, both locally and federally. This essay argues that agents of the Canadian justice system continue to further the legacy of colonization, simultaneously over-policing Indigenous Peoples and ignoring their dignity and safety. A special focus on the relationship between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Indigenous communities will be explored.
With the passing of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, it is important to acknowledge Canada’s long and continuing history of harms against Indigenous people. For there to be any hope of repairing relationships and achieving true reconciliation, it is important that settler Canadians and newcomers grapple with the truth of the nation’s colonizing past. Important in this examination should not only be the history of this colonizing project but how settlers and newcomers benefit from systems and policies that continue to suppress and marginalize Indigenous people today.
Some RCMP history
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is a well-recognized Canadian institution and international symbol. Founded in 1863 as the North West Mounted Police, this police force was charged with implementing Canadian law in the west of the country (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 2017). The force established posts in Saskatchewan and Alberta to monitor trade of alcohol between Indigenous people and Americans, and later the Klondike Gold Rush. The RCMP adopted its current name in 1920 following a merge with the Dominion Police of eastern Canada (RCMP, 2017). Today, it has jurisdiction in all Canadian provinces and territories, save for Ontario and Quebec.
The RCMP has a history of supporting the advance of colonization in Canada, by protecting the construction of infrastructure for transportation and trade and facilitating the industrial extraction of resources from the land (Howe & Monaghan, 2018). With the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the North West Mounted Police made it part of its federal mandate to guard the project against “Indians, non-indigenous peoples and their own employees” (de Lint, 2004; as cited in Proulx, 2014, p.83). More recently, the RCMP shared intelligence reports about First Nations with energy companies in the private sector between 2007 and 2010, and later in 2013, RCMP response escalated to violence against anti-fracking protests by the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick (Proulx, 2014). Why would such actions and associated surveillance of Indigenous groups be necessary? Is treatment of Indigenous Nations and their allies as “other” justified with regards to advancing Canadian progress and prosperity?
King (2013) points to how a colonial mindset can inform mainstream Canadians’ memory and understanding of history. Many Canadians are unaware of the history of how our nation formed except for the perspectives that focus on French and British control. The land that was “discovered” is recounted as being uninhabited and unused. The critical help that Indigenous people provided to European traders and settlers is forgotten. Many settler Canadians and newcomers do not learn about treaties that exist between the government and individual First Nations, and they lack an understanding of Aboriginal rights. Instead, efforts of these nations to assert their right to self-government and defend their traditional lands are depicted as obstacles and threats to Canadian interests. If “[history] is the stories we tell about the past” (King, 2013, p.2) then many Canadians are telling and perpetuating an incomplete account, which continues to villainize Indigenous resistance. The stories that warrant further consideration are those of the settler government’s broken promises, unfulfilled responsibilities to treaties, and its genocidal policies.
The relationship between Indigenous people in Canada and the government is not well understood by many. Through the creation of treaties, Indigenous people have modified or ceded their Aboriginal rights; however, they never granted the Crown the right to govern or be sovereign over them (Olthius et al., 2014). This has not been the same interpretation of the treaty-making process shared by the Canadian government who, until Constitutional changes were made in 1982 to recognize Aboriginal and treaty rights, felt “free to unilaterally override rights contained in the treaties” (Olthius et al, 2014, p.31). More recently, Canada signed their support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Fontaine, 2016). If the government continues to underserve Indigenous peoples in Canada and infringe on their human rights and ways of life, it will remain in direct contradiction of this international commitment.
The relationship between Indigenous peoples and the settler Canadian government has been characterized by both control and disregard, resulting in differential treatment of Indigenous people through legislation and the Canadian justice system. Simpson (2011) recounts how replacing Indigenous governance systems by colonial administration was a planned assimilation strategy, meant to erase Indigenous political, cultural and social life. Opposition to Indigenous resistance and efforts to reestablish Indigenous self-government directly furthers this colonial legacy. Chronically insufficient and unstable financial support, services and infrastructure for Indigenous people living on reserve are an example of how the Canadian government exercises indifferent, paternalistic control over their lives.
RCMP surveillance of Indigenous activism
Canada has a long history of maintaining surveillance of Indigenous people, including the use of Indian status cards, pass systems on reserve and identification disks for the Inuit (Proulx, 2014). These methods have served to control and restrict the movement of Indigenous people and communities and regulate their access to services. Currently, the RCMP engages in pervasive surveillance of Indigenous communities and activist efforts. Although the right to peaceful assembly is enshrined within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Indigenous people engaged in organized protest over the unlawful use of their lands are categorized as criminal and a terrorist threat to the nation. As agents of Canadian law, the RCMP have intervened in land dispute protests, since the time of the Oka Crisis in the 1990s, with armed intimidation and force to disperse protest camps. These actions are in violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed by the Canadian government as of 2016, which “guarantees protections for First Nations lands and resources and reaffirms that states require First Nation consent” (Proulx, 2014, p.87). What these organized protests have highlighted in a publically visible way is how the government and industry have not done their due diligence to appropriately consult Indigenous Nations and receive their prior and informed consent regarding the use of their lands and resources.
Although the RCMP are meant to uphold the law and protect the interests of all people, they have demonstrated on multiple occasions that, as an organization, they do not put the treatment of Indigenous people on the same level as industry’s development interests. Howe and Monaghan (2018) describe how the RCMP have shifted their tactics to manage Indigenous activism and protests towards pre-emptive control and strategic incapacitation. Through heightened surveillance monitoring of Indigenous activist leaders and organizations, the RCMP have used data-banked intelligence to delegitimize and halt the progress of these movements and criminalize those involved. Although Indigenous people and their allies are fully within their democratic rights to protest wrongs committed by the settler government and industry, the actions of the RCMP (as an agent of the government) make exercising these rights inherently dangerous and adversarial. It is clear that in these interactions the RCMP is not a neutral party in its efforts to “keep the peace”.
The RCMP has also proven ineffective in protecting Indigenous communities, most notably regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Wilson (2018) notes that Indigenous women are drastically more at risk to experience physical abuse and violent crime compared to other subsets of the population in Canada. Part of the reason for Indigenous women’s vulnerable position in society is due to the dehumanizing attitudes and beliefs about gender roles and the status of women that were imposed on Indigenous communities through colonization. Racist and sexist stereotypes regarding Indigenous women, described by Wilson (2018) as “historical systemic stereotyping”, unfortunately still pervade Canadian society.
Unhelpful in addressing these serious issues has been the lack of proper process and follow-up by the RCMP investigating missing and murdered Indigenous women. Indigenous people’s distrust of police has also resulted in underreporting of abuse and crimes committed against Indigenous women. With Indigenous women likely more represented among the nation’s poor and sex workers, therefore possibly being considered “disposable”, they are more vulnerable targets of crime. The perpetrators of violence (Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike) may believe they are unlikely to face consequences for their actions.
The relationship between Indigenous communities and the RCMP
In 2011, the RCMP released a report examining its role in the Indian Residential School System. Through researching and publishing the report on the organization, by the organization, the RCMP sought to “document and demonstrate its dedication to the healing and reconciliation process” (LeBeuf, 2011, p.1). The report specifically focuses on the roles of RCMP officers related to the residential schools and actions they took if they became aware of abuses committed against the children. According to the report’s findings, RCMP officers were most often involved with the schools in aiding to follow up with truant students and fining the students’ parents for their children’s failure to attend the schools, as was required by law (LeBeuf, 2011). Under threat of police action, some Indigenous parents were intimidated by Indian Agents to ensure their children attended residential school. Furthermore, because of RCMP officers’ limited presence within these secluded schools and their perceived cooperation with school administrators, it is unlikely that children would have reported abuses to them at that time.
Another self-report by the RCMP in 2014 centered on a national operational overview regarding its response to missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as understanding the prevalence of these incidents. In a follow-up report the next year, the RCMP admitted to gaps in communication and disciplined process in investigating instances of missing and murdered Indigenous women (Wilson, 2018). Some of the excuses offered in their findings included confusion about jurisdictional authority regarding reporting, cultural biases of officers delaying timely reporting and action, and distraction by media accounts regarding cases. Families of the missing and victims in these cases might not be referred to Victim Services as would usually be procedure. It is no wonder then that victims and families within the Indigenous community might not want to engage with the RCMP, as their experiences were unlikely to be supported or acted on.
The findings of these reports may be discouraging in the least and maybe even unbelievable. A cause for hope in addressing the relationship between Indigenous communities and the RCMP may be the organization’s willingness to conduct this research and present their findings publicly. A critical and initial part of the reconciliation journey requires the uncovering and telling of truth about our history. Recalling King (2013), our hopes for changing our understanding of our colonial history is bound up in our willingness to seek out and attend to the stories and perspectives of Indigenous people. With a more enlightened understanding of our country’s history, settler Canadians and newcomers should support the resistance and resurgence of Indigenous pride and self-determination. This includes a deeper understanding of Aboriginal rights, treaty responsibilities, and appropriately acknowledging, stewarding and defending Indigenous lands. This perspective and appreciation may help us contextualize land dispute protests and RCMP intervention.
It is also appropriate to look to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC) and their calls to action to guide a way forward. Among the 94 calls to action, 18 relate specifically to justice and three calls address “equity for Aboriginal People in the legal system” (TRCC, 2016, pp.3–6). The first call to action within the justice subsection specifically pertains to the RCMP and how it should be officially independent to investigate crimes where the government is implicated, which would shift its current relationship and function vis-à-vis the government. Other calls to action within this subsection concern eliminating the overrepresentation of Indigenous people (notably youth) in custody over the next decade. Specifically concerning the victimization of Indigenous people, the TRCC calls for data on Indigenous homicide and family violence to be collected and published. It also calls for a public inquiry into the disproportionate victimization of Indigenous women and girls.
In describing a way forward for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada, Wilson (2018) asserts that there needs to be some separate work and some work together. Looking specifically at the issue of the disproportional victimization of Indigenous women, the RCMP must make concrete changes and improvements towards their reporting and investigation processes. Indigenous communities should also be looking inward to understand the causes for the violence and abuse against women within their communities by members of their own, and seek ways to honour women, facilitate individual and community healing, and protect the vulnerable from ongoing and future violence. Together, Indigenous communities and the RCMP should be engaged in building strong and positive relationships with each other, and jointly take on the responsibility of protecting Indigenous women and reversing the conditions that have made them so vulnerable to violent crime.
This paper has examined the legacy of colonization as furthered by the RCMP, and how this organization currently relates to Indigenous communities in Canada. Though initial steps have been made to account for the RCMP’s historic role during the time of the residential schools and the current failures to properly address the concern of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, there is more timely work needed so that the RCMP can be a more neutral party, able to uphold law and peace in Canada. An onus rests on settler Canadians and newcomers to seek out and listen to Indigenous perspectives, understand our collective responsibilities to treaties, and hold our settler government to account and compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Fontaine, T. (2016, August 2). Canada officially adopts UN declaration on rights of Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved on April 13, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/canada-adopting-implementing-un-rights-declaration-1.3575272
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Simpson, L. B. (2011). Dancing on our turtle’s back: Stories of Nishnaabeg re-creation, resurgence and a new emergence. Winnipeg, MB: ARP Books. (pp. 11–29).
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