OTTAWA — Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller delivered a scathing rebuke of Canada's national police force Thursday, saying the Mounties are not immune to systemic racism and that they can and should do better.
His remarks came as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed confidence in RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki after the top Mountie said she is struggling with the definition of systemic racism within the force.
Lucki made the comments during media interviews this week. She was responding to allegations of bias and discrimination in the federal police force and others across the country following several violent interactions between authorities and Indigenous Peoples.
Miller refused to pass judgment on Lucki over her comments, but did point to the apology she delivered in 2018 on behalf of the RCMP to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
In it, Lucki promised to "examine the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and prevent and eliminate further violence."
Miller said Thursday scrutiny of this promise is warranted.
"She undertook to do better and that the RCMP and Indigenous Peoples were entitled to the best there was of the RCMP," Miller.
"That was a promise two years ago. Now, I look at the events of the last couple of weeks ... and I ask myself, 'Is that the best? Is that the absolute best?' Because that was the promise that was made two years ago."
As for the lingering question of whether systemic racism exists within the RCMP, Miller said the answer is a clear and simple yes.
But he also said this doesn't mean every cop or individual is a racist.
"We can't deny that there is systemic racism in all our institutions. It isn't by some magical stroke of fate that the RCMP would be immune to that. We know it exists and we have to acknowledge it," Miller told reporters in Ottawa.
"We are at our best when we question ourselves, when we question our instincts and I think that's something that needs to be done because I know we're turning around an issue that we do need to re-examine in the RCMP and there's no question about it."
In his defence of Lucki Thursday, Trudeau says he has worked closely with her over the years and that he trusts the commissioner to lead reforms at the RCMP.
"We're facing a really important time in our country right now where we are recognizing what many Indigenous Canadians and racialized Canadians have known for a long time — that there is systemic discrimination right across our country and every part of our country and in our institutions. And recognizing that is difficult," Trudeau said in Ottawa.
"I have confidence in Commissioner Lucki," he added, "and I know that the changes that she has already begun to bring to our national police force and the work that we're going to be doing together in the coming months is going to make a huge difference in combating systemic racism and reducing it in this country."
In December 2015, former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson appeared before the Assembly of First Nations and conceded there were racists in the police force and that he didn't want them within his ranks.
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said to his knowledge, nothing has been done since that surprising admission more than four years ago to weed out racists and to address systemic racial bias within the overall organization.
Lucki declined an interview request. Questions sent to the RCMP asking what actions have been taken to address Paulson's concerns in 2015 were not answered Thursday.
Bellegarde said he believes Lucki's comments were "ill-informed" and welcomes working with her to implement solutions that could lead to systemic change.
He also said he finds it frustrating people are still arguing over the existence of racism in the RCMP rather than trying to implement the many solutions recommended in numerous reports and reviews over the years, including the national inquiry.
"The problem is complacency is killing our people. All the recommendations are not being implemented," Bellegarde said.
The final report of the national inquiry, which looked into the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of Indigenous women and girls, was highly critical of the RCMP's dealings with Indigenous Peoples. It said that contributed to a "relationship of distrust and animosity."
It called for more civilian oversight, an independent national police task force to reopen cases or review investigations and called on all governments to "immediately and dramatically transform Indigenous policing from its current state as a mere delegation to an exercise in self-governance and self-determination over policing."
Further solutions proposed by Bellegarde include more training on de-escalation practices, a ban on police chokeholds, alternative first responders for situations involving people with mental health or substance abuse issues and more work to make the justice system restorative, rather than punitive.
"We need to start having formal processes to start working toward those goals," he said.
In a statement issued Thursday, the Canadian Association of the Chiefs of Police said its members know many people are understandably hurt and angry right now in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. But they also said Canadian police training and civilian oversight "is among the best in the world."
The police chiefs urged conversations around "defunding the police" to remain "informed and evidence-based with police at the table."
On this point, Miller mused openly Thursday that defunding police could be better considered as "refunding" police, with resources perhaps reallocated toward more Indigenous-run policing — a suggestion that Bellegarde also shared.
As for police officers who are overtly racist and behave badly, Miller did not mince words.
"People took oaths. They need to respect them. Hard stop. And if they don't want to, there's a door and they can take it. "
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2020.