BACK OF THE BOOK
January 22, 2016 By Ian Parsons
Reflecting on my service in a cornucopia of cultural communities led me to conclude that dispensing justice in a country as culturally diversified as Canada is not without its challenges. The task of policing demands a myriad of skills without adding the always present variability in mores, customs, standards and general “way of being” of different Canadian communities.
In a span of 33 years, I was thrust into aboriginal, metis, Ukrainian, Scandinavian and French settings. I also served in Newfoundland, a charming culture unto itself. As a young policeman, the subtleties of these communities were not so evident to me.
As I watched my role models it seemed that some were more attuned to cultural differences than others. It also became obvious that those who tended to acculturate seemed infinitely more successful in their role as policemen. They had fewer confrontations, solved more crime and appeared to have greater job satisfaction. These members studied the backgrounds of the people they were responsible to and for. They knew who held the real power in the community and took the time to become familiar with these leaders. They were aware of important cultural events, learning about and respecting them. They made an effort to participate in a non enforcement way, played in community sporting events, acted as judges in goofy contests and more often than not were known by their first name.
One of the largest First Nations communities is located east of Calgary, Alberta. I served under a detachment commander who possessed all those attributes previously described to be successful in an unfamiliar cultural setting. There had been a series of police-citizen confrontations prior to this commander’s arrival and relations were not good.
During our first summer, several of us were patrolling a very large powwow on the reserve along with the sergeant. Participants far outnumbered the police. During these significant ceremonial gatherings a gambling event called “hand games” takes place. The rules are complex, betting is serious and there is much noise during the game.
The sergeant approached one of the elders and asked if he could enter his “team”. The Indians were as shocked as we when we found ourselves squatting cross legged on the ground in uniform, facing our opposition. We had no idea what the objective of the game was, and our participation amazed and delighted onlookers.
The optics of six RCMP members squatted on the ground opposite another team, playing with sticks, must have been something to behold. Thankful for the lack of any media, we held our ground and actually won the game. There was a great howl of appreciation from the crowd and if there was any negativity toward us previously, this gesture of camaraderie had a neutralizing effect.
The sergeant carried on from that point during his reign, guiding us all into situations where we had to actually interact with citizens in non-enforcement ways. Prior to this commander’s arrival there had been in excess of a dozen “assault peace officer”, “resist arrest” and “obstruction” offences. At the conclusion of his first year, no similar assaults against police had occurred.
There has always been a real danger those in our craft will emulate “Fort Apache the Bronx”. The office becomes a fortress where we show up for our shifts, change into our armour, book out our combat vehicle and proceed to confront the enemy. I have worked in such a setting and if ever there is a formula for instant public confrontation, it is this.
It’s natural in a stressful, sometimes danger-ridden occupation that we cling to one another, circle the wagons and look outward. When situated in an unfamiliar cultural setting it is even more tempting. There is no question many of us must force ourselves out of our comfort zone. I have always envied those members who seem completely at ease when surrounded by a group of unruly young people, or what appears to be a surly gathering from another racial base. Often the reason for confidence in such a setting has to do with previously establishing a rapport with that very group. It is a return on an investment of time well spent.
It’s just another aspect of the job; taking the time to assess and evaluate the dynamics in play in the work setting before there is a problem. With our ever changing cultural demographics it has never been more important.
There isn’t a whole lot of literature out there telling you how to be a “cultural chameleon”. Adjusting perceptual screens as you enter a community setting very different from that in which you were raised will bring you benefits to the job that you will never regret.
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