TRUTH & RECONCILIATION AND THE RCMP
By Ian Parsons
By Ian Parsons
1238 words – MR
Truth and reconciliation and the RCMP
by Ian Parsons
I was reared in an RCMP home, served for 33 years and now view the Force through the eyes of my step-son, a serving member. All told, my perspective encompasses 75 years.
As I reflect, a most vexing question comes to the fore. How is it possible that untold incidents of physical and sexual abuse were occurring in aboriginal communities in all parts of Canada for generations under the watchful eyes of RCMP members and no disclosures were forthcoming? Was there awareness? Was the power and mystique of organized religion such that members were intimidated?
I would prefer to think serving members were unaware of assaults because they were isolated from the venues where they took place — yet some members were sufficiently embedded in the fibre of the citizenry to become aware of sexual offences in communities and religious groups. They intervened and took appropriate action.
What was the difference? Why were wrongs perpetrated against native people in epidemic proportions without the knowledge of police?
I hold myself culpable along with my peers. I was a young constable in two large western Canadian Indian reserves with residential schools for extended periods. Heinous offences were being committed against native youth and we were unaware. In my case, we had such minimal personal contact with residential schools and native families that the chance of disclosure was remote.
In reflection, it is understandable how this could have occurred. The RCMP in my era never considered an Indian reserve as a community to become involved in. Reserves were poverty-stricken and a constant source of strife and social discord, often garnering the unwelcome attention of RCMP enforcement.
Most assuredly some, if not much, of the anti-social activity was acted out by individuals whose egos and self-respect were severely damaged by childhood sex abuse experiences. Many victims became dysfunctional parents themselves. Often First Peoples were looked down upon without empathy, usually from a lofty paternal perspective, frequently with distaste.
Contact between members and native citizens were fraught with mutual anger and discomfort. For years, the enforcement of very prejudicial and unpopular liquor laws under the Indian Act was a source of friction; they were eventually repealed.
There was no intimacy or personal relationship between citizens and police. Consequently the possibility of a disclosure of an embarrassing sexual nature to a police officer was remote. With the exception of the North, our policing coverage, almost always enforcement-oriented, was from the arm’s length of a detachment in the nearest non-Indian community.
Some efforts have been made contemporarily to alleviate the dynamics just described. In the latter half of my own career, I “turned a corner,” so to speak, and strove to establish more integrated policing to native people. However, again in reflection, I do not believe our efforts truly bridged the gap of alienation established by years of impersonal and ineffective policing.
It would be instructive to learn how the torrent of current disclosures initially occurred. Were they originally received by detachments, or was it an enquiry that opened the Pandora’s Box of scandalous behaviour by church officials and persons in authority?
The reason for the question is this: Have relations between the RCMP and native communities so improved that similar disclosures of sexual offences will now be brought to the attention of officers? If the answer is no, the community does not have that level of comfort with police, things must change. It is too late simply to “talk the talk” when it comes to offering a police service to aboriginal communities.
The stigma of discomfort on the part of RCMP members who must serve Aboriginal People has to be eradicated, either by indoctrinating members or moving them out if they are not willing to completely integrate into the community. Implementing structural change that provide incentives and tangible support would encourage members to become involved.
The very fact that these horrendous circumstances had been perpetrated for so long and in so many locations with no police intervention is prima facie that some very serious deficits were in play for many, many years.
Sadly the comment from Chief Crowfoot observing that the Mounted Police “protected the Indian as the feathers protect the birds from the frosts of winter” was only a myth. The Force, for whatever reason, was anything but proactive in this tragic unfolding of horror.
The Force must be prepared to explain how it remained apart and unaware of this huge problem. More importantly, it must demonstrate what has been done to ensure lines of communication between RCMP members and First Peoples has been sufficiently enhanced to allow immediate disclosure of facts to police investigators so that they can be proactive.
This can be a “watershed” moment for the offering of a policing service to Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. For the past decades there have been moments of encouragement, however interest has had a tendency to ebb and flow, depending on budgeting, priorities and interests of senior RCMP managers.
I had the good fortune to serve during a decade where motivation to make serious impactful changes demonstrated a transition toward empathic, community-based policing on reserves. Then for reasons unknown, much of the thrust in training and emphasis appears to have lost momentum. By way of example, just with the change of the training officer at the RCMP Academy, much of the cross cultural training curriculum disappeared from the syllabus. I am not aware of the priority it presently receives, but cross cultural training must receive the commissioner’s personal attention, and be reinforced at the operational level by managers and supervisors.
Optics is everything to the success of aboriginal policing. First Peoples must feel that we have their best interests at heart; so much so that they are comfortable approaching members if and when aberrant behaviour is occurring. The formulae to open lines of communication between minority citizens and police will enhance the effectiveness of policing throughout this multicultural tapestry called Canada. In reality, the only way this could be possible on a practical level is for Aboriginal People to be real participants in conceptualizing, planning, structuring and implementing approaches to meaningful policing. The outcome of such a process may alter the direction of everything, from training to the policies and structure of the RCMP.
When RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson recently acknowledged to the Assembly of First Nations that there are racists in his police force and he did not want them, it demonstrated to native leaders he would not defend that kind of attitude from his people. It was obvious by their reaction that Paulson had established credibility through his open and nondefensive response. This could mark the dawn of a new era of cooperation between police and people they have interacted with for generations.
There are members currently serving at all levels who would assist in doing what is necessary. They only require inspiration and impetus from the top. I fervently hope this is the moment when the RCMP leads all police forces by example to live up to the words Chief Crowfoot uttered so many years ago.
Be prepared, however, for resistance and truculence. In the brief period since Paulson’s appearance, criticism of his candid response have surfaced. Fundamental change in an organization has never occurred easily, and these kinds of initiatives will evoke resistance.
Ian T. Parsons is a retired RCMP inspector living in Courtenay BC. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org .