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Systemic racism in policing across B.C. demands reform says Human Rights Commissioner

B.C. Human Rights Commission report calls for systemic change
RCMP. (Phil McLachlan photo)

By Athena Bonneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Indigenous Peoples are “grossly over-represented” in arrests and chargeable incidents across unceded territories in British Columbia, according to a new report by B.C.’s Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender.

“People may wonder what over-policing actually looks like,” Govender said during a webinar on Nov. 24.

“It looks like Max Johnson, a Heiltsuk grandfather who was handcuffed in front of his granddaughter when police mistakenly thought he presented a piece of a fraudulent ID … And it looks like Chantel Moore, an Indigenous woman from B.C. who was shot and killed during a wellness check.”

This is not about “a few bad apples or even many bad apples who work as police officers in B.C., although racist behaviour of individual officers can be evidence of larger issues of systemic racism,” says the commissioner’s report, released Wednesday.

“The issue is whether practices or attitudes within B.C.’s police services have, whether by design or impact, the effect of violating human rights of certain racialized groups, including by disproportionately over-policing certain communities.”

Data collected by the commissioner from police services in Vancouver, Surrey, Prince George, Nelson, and Duncan/North Cowichan shows that “racial disparities do exist in policing in B.C.”

“The statistics represent real harm to real people, including mental health impacts, physical injuries or death and immediate long-term and intergenerational trauma,” Govender says.

The commissioner recruited Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Scot Wortley, two professors from the University of Toronto with expertise in race-based policing data, to support this work.

On Wednesday, Wortley presented findings from his data analysis — which found, for example, that Indigenous and Black people are “grossly over-represented in Vancouver Police arrest data.”

They found that while Indigenous people make up only 2.2 per cent of Vancouver’s population, they were involved in 24.5 per cent of all arrests captured by the Vancouver Police Department’s data between 2011 and 2020. (The race of people documented as “offenders” was only available for 87 per cent of the sample.)On average, Indigenous Peoples were arrested at a rate of around 20,000 per 100,000 — ten times greater than the rate for white people (around 2,000 per 100,000), and 11 times greater than the city average.

Indigenous men have an annual arrest rate 18 times greater than the city average, while the rate for Indigenous women is 4.6 times greater than average — and 15.2 times greater than the rate for white women.

Black people are also grossly overrepresented with an annual arrest rate 5.3 times greater than the average in Vancouver.

“These disparities demand monitoring, policy attention and action by police, government and oversight bodies to redress the disparities that this data points to,” Wortley said.

The commissioner pointed to the need for better race-based policing data.

The minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General should “take steps to amend the Police Act to expressly authorize the police to collect race-based data and other demographic data for the purpose of addressing systemic discrimination in policing,” Govender suggests in the report.

“The B.C. RCMP’s failure to retain historical policing data for research and study purposes is deeply troubling as it contradicts principles of transparency and accountability in policing,” she says.

While there may be a lack of race-based policing data for the Okanagan region, Bruce Manuel says he keeps a close eye on daily court lists — and they show how Indigenous people are overrepresented in the system.

“There’d be roughly three pages, four pages of … maybe 40-60 names. Probably a third of the names are going to be Indigenous,” he says.

Manuel has served as the corrections liaison officer for the South Okanagan Restorative Justice Program for over a decade. He says he works with folks connected to the system in different ways: incarcerated individuals, youth, probation and parole officers — as well as schools, bands and First Nations within his catchment area, the South Okanagan.

“Discrimination is a choice,” says Manuel, who is an Upper Nicola Indian Band member.

RCMP officers have “discretionary power to make referrals to restorative justice and to alternative measure programs.” But when it comes to “Indigenous individuals that are in conflict with the law, they tend to be shuffled through the system.”

As a corrections liaison officer, Manuel says his job is to insert himself into the system to try and reduce incarceration rates and lessen the rates of criminalization for things like breaching. He supports self-identified Indigenous people charged with a criminal offense by ensuring they understand their right to a Gladue report.

Gladue reports take into consideration the impacts of colonization — such as “racism, loss of language, removal from land, Indian residential schools, and foster care” — on an individual and make sentencing recommendations or suggest alternatives to jail, according to Aboriginal Legal Aid in BC.

“A lot of times individuals waive that right, unknowingly,” he says. “It’s a matter of education and self-education because if you don’t know that you’re being discriminated against, it’s like when a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear.

“A lot of times our individuals that are being caught up in the crime are displaced … like an individual from .125Penticton Indian Band.375 living in town, caught up into addictions … .125who.375 needs to find a way to support their drug habit.”

They may start doing petty crimes like robbery, he says, and then “over time, the addictions will take a person to a place that they wouldn’t normally go.”

“You can’t prevent crime, you have to prevent criminals,” he says, and that means reconnecting “people back to the community of care.” It means connecting them with their “place of origin, family of origin, community of origin, etc.”

The commissioner’s report — Equity is safer: Human rights considerations for policing reform in British Columbia — was submitted to the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act.

It makes 29 recommendations for reform “as a starting point to achieve equality in policing.”

The commissioner recommends, for example, that the province work with First Nation communities on a government-to-government level on legislative amendments, and “provide funding to enable Indigenous Peoples to be partners in Police Act reform.”

She also suggests a civilian monitor be “appointed for every investigation into an incident that results in death or serious harm to an Indigenous person” — at least until the province establishes Indigenous civilian oversight bodies.

Manuel points out that the roadmap to equity has already been laid out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“Take a look at the TRC. Take a look at the recommendations from UNDRIP, and basically start doing the work that’s been laid out within those documents,” he says.

“Put the resources into those areas where they’re actually going to benefit Indigenous populations, hopefully by way of lessening the rates of incarceration, lessening the criminalization of Indigenous Peoples across Canada for things like land-defending or protesting or … whatever it is that individuals are being incarcerated for.”