Beyond bad apples (Dec 16, 2015)

"Some of the worst racists carry a gun and they carry a badge authorized by you, Commissioner Paulson, to do the work. We need you to confront racism in the ranks."

This indictment was delivered on December 9, 2015 at the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations by Grand Chief Doug Kelly, leader of the Sto:lo Tribal Council from unceded Coast Salish Territory in British Columbia. Grand Chief Kelly told the Commission of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Bob Paulson, that indigenous peoples experience racism everyday at the hands of his police force and pushed the Commissioner to take action on racism in the police force. The Grand Chief went on to indicate his dislike of the “politics of the last decade” which included the RCMP releasing controversial reports that indicated Aboriginal men were to blame for the violence experienced by Aboriginal women. Statistical data that is being actively challenged by the Assembly of First Nations and being ripped apart by advocates, researchers, and journalists alike. [1]

“Shame on you Mr. Paulson. You want to earn trust? You start by owning the truth, and apologizing. And doing more than apologizing. You start acting on the direction of government about reconciliation.” Grand Chief Kelly ended his comments and indictment of an organization that will take a central role in the coming months as the new Federal Government takes aim at a massive overhaul of the justice system while laying the foundation for an national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

The RCMP Commissioner then took the stage. He first admitted that there are racists in the police force. An admission that appeared to catch the media off guard as his comments were characterized as “candid.” He then added, “I don’t want them to be in my police force.” The commissioner asked the leaders to “take confidence in the systems that are in place” and new disciplinary mechanisms that can be used. The commissioner asked the leaders in the room to call him if when there is a racist in their police force. While social media feeds quickly filled with comments that indicated there was nothing surprising about saying that the police force has racist officers, there is still a need to dig into this exchange at this particular political moment in Canada. I will do so briefly below and hope to add links to other pieces that are written in the coming days as I hope there will ongoing analyses and responses to this encounter.

Let me first take a small step back. The intent of this blog series is about unsettling, about unsettling Canada as a settler state but also about unsettling exchanges like the one between the Grand Chief and the Commissioner. Before unsettling this exchange, I want to offer further context especially for those readers outside of Canada.

Grand Chief Kelly’s comments were delivered after the new Federal Government (under the Liberal Party) indicated plans to implement all Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations. The TRC released its preliminary recommendations earlier this year after years of investigation into residential school abuses, alongside the contemporary outcomes of settler colonialism including poverty, incarceration, and violence—when it was first released the government at the time (under Stephen Harper) did not respond so six months later some response from the state was long overdue. In addition to committing to implement the TRC recommendations, the new Federal Government agreed to a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women which was announced the day before these exchange between the Grand Chief and Commission.  While the exchange happened during a week of what were seen as positive announcements from the Federal government, the comments were also delivered one week after the CBC (a national news outlet) announced that it was closing down ALL comment fields associated to stories about Aboriginal peoples. The broadcaster indicated these comments fields are overwhelmingly filled with racist responses that are so “hateful and vitriolic” that the news outlet temporarily suspended all comments.

This is but some of the context that surrounds the exchange between Grand Chief Kelly and Commissioner Paulson. For some, the past week would present as a “mixed bag” with stories about racism being countered with commitments to address racism. But a mixed bag analysis would be predicated on the presumptions being made by Paulson himself—that racism is not systemic and the racism we speak of in Canada is not the product of setter colonialism. But rather that actions can be used to address individual acts of racism. In the case of Paulson’s comment, this was evident when admitted there were racist police on the force and that he didn’t want them.

Agreement, there are racists. But isolated. He did not want them. Them is a limited and tangible amount.  

This point was made that much clearer when Paulson then asked the room of Chiefs to call him if they have a racist that needs to be dealt with because (a) there are systems in place and (b) trust the systems because they have recently been improved. While it is important to note that this is the first time the Commissioner had addressed the Assembly just as it is important to recognize racism in one’s organization. The issue here is that incidents of racism are not isolated to a few individuals. In agreeing that there are racists in his police force and asking for others to be reported, Paulson careful avoids calling his police force racist. There is a need to not limit this discussion to racist police officers but rather direct attention to the racist systems.

It is the systems in Canada that are racist. And the concern here is that when systemic racism is bundled up into a narrative of a few bad apples then we can avoid the systemic nature of the actions. Grand Chief Kelly himself, “why do I keep having to deal with these bad apples” before he indicated that not all police are bad. And this is the problem with the bad apples metaphor, it misses the mark as even Kelly himself appears to move away from the systemic nature of racism while calling out the Commissioner on systemic racism. Kelly was fierce in his critique but then hedged his bets to not appear to indict all police. We need to talk about systems not people. People make up systems, agreed, but if we talk about the system, we can start to have a meaningful dialogue about how entrenched the practices are such that upwards of 80% of the jails in my province are filled with Aboriginal peoples (when they only comprise 20% of the overall population); that over 1200 Aboriginal women and girls have been killed or are missing in Canada and that there are literally tens of thousands of Aboriginal children that are the custody of the state. These are systems of oppression.

Until these systems of oppression are dismantled, there will continue to be a group of individuals that experience privilege as a direct result of the disenfranchisement of Aboriginal peoples. This is not the result of a few bad apples, it is a result of ongoing complacency and apathy that allows oppressive systems to thrive. Apathy and complacency on the part of so many; these same individuals will call for an inquiry or justice system reform but will not actively take up the discussion of unsettling the very systems that execute and sustain oppression. In the absence of this type of solidarity work—work that unsettles—settlers and others can find themselves believing that the situation in Canada is simply a case of a few bad apples. These are the same individuals that say “this is not my Canada” when they read about oppression. To them, I say, “this is literally your Canada.” If we are stuck with the metaphor of bad apples, then Canada is an orchard that has been rotting since its colonial inception.

[1] For example of investigative journalism, see the following piece from the Toronto Star.

Posted on December 16, 2015 .