Blue Line

In the days since the AJI, Winnipeg police taking strides to improve relationships with Indigenous people

March 28, 2023  By Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Mar. 28, 2023, Winnipeg, Man. – More than 30 years ago in the wee hours of a winter morning in Winnipeg’s West End, police officer Robert Cross confronted John Joseph (J.J.) Harper, a gun shot rang out, and soon Harper lay dead on the frozen ground.

An inquiry into his death showed that “racism” had played a role in the shooting that night, and that a whole lot more needed to be done in this city to build and repair relationships and trust between police and Indigenous people and communities.

But now more than 30 years later, where does that relationship stand today? What more can be done to improve it? And is this city’s police force using recommendations made by the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry?

Over the course of several stories the Winnipeg Sun will work to uncover how police and Indigenous people interact in this city, and what the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) has been doing and continues to do to try to build and improve relationships with Indigenous people and communities, so the force can do a better job of both serving and protecting those communities.


The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI), was a public inquiry first commissioned by the Manitoba government in 1988, and when its final report was presented in 1991, its stated purpose was “to examine the relationship between the Aboriginal peoples of Manitoba and the justice system.”

The AJI was commissioned by the Manitoba Government partly in response to Harper’s death, as Harper, a member of the Wasagamack Indian Band in the Island Lake area, and the executive director of the Island Lake Tribal Council, was a well-known leader in Manitoba’s Indigenous community in 1988 when he was gunned down.

According to reports, Harper had spent the night out with friends and was walking in the West End towards his home at around 2:30 a.m. on March 9, 1988, when WPS Const. Robert Cross confronted him, as Cross was, at the time, searching for a suspect in a car theft.

Although Harper had nothing to do with that car theft, a scuffle between the two ensued that ultimately led to Harper being shot in the chest and killed.

A massive public outcry and a demand for accountability in that case was one of the pillars for the Manitoba government commissioning the AJI, and in 1991 the final report from the inquiry painted a grim picture of the relationship between police in Winnipeg and across the province, and Indigenous people.

It also showed that there were inequalities throughout the entire criminal justice system in the province that were negatively affecting Indigenous people in “grossly disproportionate numbers.”

“The justice system has failed Manitoba’s aboriginal people on a massive scale,” the final report stated. “It has been insensitive and inaccessible, and has arrested and imprisoned aboriginal people in grossly disproportionate numbers. Aboriginal people who are arrested are more likely than non-aboriginal people to be denied bail, spend more time in pre-trial detention and spend less time with their lawyers, and, if convicted, are more likely to be incarcerated. It is not merely that the justice system has failed aboriginal people; justice has also been denied to them. For more than a century the rights of aboriginal people have been ignored and eroded.”

The AJI’s final report included hundreds of recommendations for improving the relationships between Indigenous people and police forces and the entire criminal justice system, but in Manitoba and across the country, Indigenous people continue to be greatly overrepresented in the justice system, both as offenders, but also as victims of crime.

According to a recent federal report, Indigenous people make up around 30 per cent of the federal prison population in Canada, while making up just 5 per cent of the country’s population, but those numbers rise steeply here in Manitoba, where it is estimated that at Stony Mountain Penitentiary, this province’s largest federal penitentiary, as many as 70 per cent of inmates are Indigenous.

Federal data from 2014 also showed that 28 per cent of Indigenous people over the age of 15 reported being victimized in the previous 12 months, compared to 18 per cent of non-Indigenous people. That rate of violent victimization among Indigenous people was more than double that of non-Indigenous people.

And Indigenous women had an overall rate of violent victimization close to triple that of non-Indigenous women.

One long-time advocate for Indigenous people in Winnipeg says he knows that to this day there are many in the Indigenous community that still feel uncomfortable being around uniformed police officers, and that discomfort continues for many reasons.

“I’d have to say that the uniform does present, very clearly, a challenge to many Indigenous persons,” Damon Johnston said.

“They would shy away from it, and they would fear it.”

Johnston speaks from experience working in the community and with local police, as he is currently the president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg (ACW) which works to represent and advocate for urban Indigenous community members living in Winnipeg, while he also sits on the Winnipeg Police Board.

According to Johnston, who stressed he was speaking to the Winnipeg Sun in his role as president of ACW, there are always going to be issues of systemic racism in any police forces, and at all levels of society, but he said it is not fair to paint Winnipeg’s police service with a “broad brush” when it comes to its dealings with Indigenous people.

“We know there is racism in our society, there is prejudice, and discrimination towards certain groups, and we are one of those groups,” Johnston said.

“But that’s not the majority of police officers, and many do great work and they do very dangerous work. And we know it has gotten far more dangerous over the past few years, and it is probably as dangerous now as it has ever been.”

What is important for any police force, according to Johnston, is to have members of their leadership be actively seeking ways to improve relationships with Indigenous people and groups.

“It’s always up to leadership to open doors to engaging,” he said. “What’s critical in every police service is showing that they are willing to do what it takes to improve those relationships, and it’s especially important to see that from the local chief of police.”

Johnston said he has been impressed with some of the ways that WPS Chief Danny Smyth has been working on those relationships.

“The city, as a whole, has Indigenous awareness training, and the police have their own training, and WPS has the office of Indigenous relations to assist police services in improving their relationships with Indigenous people,” Johnston said. “There is definitely work being done.”

But how can that mistrust that Johnston said persists among many Indigenous people towards police officers be dealt with? He said a part of that is having people out on the streets that Indigenous people can start to see as “peacekeepers,” rather than strictly as law enforcement officers.

“Some will see a uniformed officer and not want to do anything to engage with that officer, because they fear that if they do, things will not end well for them,” he said.

“The uniform has represented official police in our society for a long time, and I don’t think any of us when we talk to officers, aren’t a little more careful about what we say and do.”

He said that plans are currently in the works to train 20 Indigenous people that, once trained, will hold security guard and First Aid certificates, and will work on the streets of Winnipeg as what Johnston said will be in the role of “peacekeepers.”

He also knows that statistics back up the fact that outcomes for Indigenous people when they engage with police officers across this country are far worse than they are for non-Indigenous people, as data released in 2020 showed that Indigenous people in Canada were 10 times more likely to be shot by a police officer than non-Indigenous people.

He also sees how media reports of situations regarding Indigenous people and police can often work to engrain fear of officers into some.

“There are reports every day in the media about individuals interacting with police, and we know that some of it is not good,” he said.

“It causes some trauma and that leads to some anxiety in our communities.”

One high profile incident that led to the death of a teenage girl in Winnipeg has put the issue of police and their dealings with Indigenous people in the public eye, when on April 8, 2020, a Winnipeg police officer shot and killed 16-year old Eisha Hudson.

Police have said the shots were fired because Hudson along with others was fleeing police after a robbery at a nearby liquor store and at one point she attempted to drive into police officers in a stolen Jeep near the corner of Fermor Avenue and Lagimodiere Boulevard in southeast Winnipeg, where she was shot and killed.

While an investigation by Manitoba’s Independent Investigation Unit (IIU) determined that no criminal charges should be laid against the officer who shot and killed Hudson, some have continued to question what factors motivated the shooting.

Johnston said he knows that some have come forward with opinions that Hudson was shot because she was Indigenous, while others have said Hudson’s own actions led to her death, but he said in any high profile situation people on all sides are often far too quick to rush to judgment and form strong opinions that are not always based on the facts.

“What I say to myself is, ‘I was not there, and I don’t know what happened,’” Johnston said. “I have to rely on other people who were there telling the truth about what happened.”

He added that he hopes to see the relationship between Indigenous people and WPS as one that always continues to improve, because there will be no single moment where people will decide that it has been fixed.

“It’s always about continuous improvement,” Johnston said. “I have always tried to apply that in my life and thought, ‘if I am doing something, is there a better way I can do it?’ And police should be working with that same attitude. I want to listen to their side of the story and be able to tell them our side of the story, and see if we can meet someone in the middle. It’s those kinds of things that can lead all of us to a better place.”

One way WPS has been working to improve relationships with Indigenous people and with all communities is by creating the Superintendent of Community Engagement position and appointing long-time WPS police officer Bonnie Emerson to that role.

Emerson, a Metis woman, said police want to improve relationships with any and all groups that have been historically marginalized.

“We have looked at, who are the leaders in the diverse communities, including Indigenous people, people of colour, LGBTQ and other groups so we can have collaboration, and have a police service that hears diverse views and opinions,” Emerson said.

According to Emerson, in interactions that Winnipeg police have in the community, the goal is always conflict resolution, and never conflict.

“It’s a timely trend that we’re seeing now across the country with police figuring out, ‘How do we respond with a measured approach using education before enforcement wherever possible, and with the goal always being to deescalate?’”

Emerson said she believes WPS should be recognized as a police force finding unique and effective strategies to work with Indigenous communities.

“I will never say any organization is perfect,” Emerson said. “But I think more and more here in Winnipeg, police are seen as an example of how you can take steps to decolonizing the system, and an example of how things can be done differently.”

She did admit she wishes more police officers on Winnipeg’s force would be willing to share the things they do to help people in the community, but said often officers don’t want publicity for doing their jobs.

“I’m blown away by the caring of police, but we don’t often hear those stories because we will say, ‘Let’s put out a release’ and a lot of officers will just say, ‘No we were just doing our job.’ But in the absence of hearing those positive things it’s a lot easier to focus on the negative.”

She said that high profile incidents like the death of Eisha Hudson do put more focus on the interactions of police and Indigenous people, but she said it is important for people to form opinions based on facts.

“First of all, the effect of anyone losing their life is deeply, deeply disturbing, and I think that police officers care and we absolutely want to do the right thing,” she said.

“But more and more the extreme hostility on either end is completely inappropriate. Asking your police to be accountable and to be transparent is absolutely appropriate, but extreme hostility is not.”

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine, who is a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation and a long-time advocate for rights and justice for Indigenous people under the criminal justice system, says it is also a long and disturbing history that continues to have Indigenous people lacking trust of police officers, and something that is engrained into many Indigenous people.

“There still is longstanding distrust of the WPS or any policing institutions for that matter,” Fontaine said.

“It cannot be overstated enough the role police played in the oppression of our peoples. Most Canadians don’t realize or know the North-West Mounted Police were solely created and established as the vehicle and the means by which western settlement was executed. The North-West Mounted Police cleared lands to make way for Euro-Canadians westward.”

She said police also played a role for generations in forcing Indigenous children into residential schools, and that’s not something that can be easily forgotten.

“The RCMP was implicit in the theft and forced removal of our children to residential schools, and with parents and grandparents often put under the threat of arrest if they didn’t give up their own children.”

And although she said she has seen WPS implement strategies to better work with Indigenous communities in Winnipeg, she does not believe those strategies always translate into positive changes on the city’s streets.

“I believe the WPS have developed strategies or engaged on a more respectful relationship with Indigenous peoples at the executive level,” Fontaine said.

“But I suggest that doesn’t necessarily always get translated into those interactions on the ground, in the street, in general patrol.”

She added she is often concerned because that lack of trust leads to some Indigenous people avoiding contacting the police, sometimes even in emergency situations, which could leave some in dangerous situations, and feeling they have nowhere to reach out for help.

“No one should ever feel they can’t reach out to police,” Fontaine said.

Fontaine does believe changes and improvements could now be “sped up” because more Manitobans of all backgrounds understand the history of Indigenous people in this country, and understand they have historically been marginalized by systems including police forces and the criminal justice system.

“I think what’s changed in the last many years is a sense of awareness and solidarity from settler Canadians who are beginning to see and somewhat understand colonial Canada, the Indian Residential School system and its intergenerational harms, and that the system is set up to favour non-Indigenous people.

“This new awareness and understanding manifests agency from these folks demanding better from governments, education, health care and themselves.”

And although she said the relationship has “ebbed and flowed” over the years, what she says has never changed is the over-representation of Indigenous people within the justice system in Winnipeg, the province and across the country and until that is dealt with no one can say that any relationship is improving.

“Despite having the blueprint, we still have a system that discriminates against Indigenous peoples,” Fontaine said.

“That’s the bottom line, and that fact remains.”

– Winnipeg Sun

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