The first frame of the video shows an Ontario Provincial Police officer throwing a slight, First Nations youth to the ground in one swift movement. There’s a sharp intake of breath from somewhere behind the camera, and a voice yells, “We are recording!”
This has become the new normal — people whipping out phones and recording an interaction with police.
We have seen this before in northern Ontario, after a First Nations girl received wildly rough treatment from a Thunder Bay police officer as she lay strapped to a gurney. This time, the images come from Sioux Lookout, a small town of 4,000 people in northwestern Ontario near the Manitoba border.
The video posted this week sums up so much of what is broken in the relationship between police and First Nations, Inuit and Métis throughout Canada. Harsh treatment. A lack of communication and respect. A lack of understanding. The ongoing effects of colonization. Police who have to deal with the fallout from decades of underfunding of social services, mental health treatment and shelter beds.
Many of these issues were summed up in a recent report from the Council of Canadian Academies entitled “Toward Peace, Harmony and Well-being: Policing in Indigenous communities.” While the report concentrated on reserve and Inuit communities, its observations can equally be applied to the general state of Indigenous interactions with police concerning crime, victimization and incarceration: The current state of affairs is tied to history, and the ongoing impact of colonization needs to be acknowledged, confronted and changed to reflect a more decolonized, respectful relationship.
Kent Roach, one of the report’s authors and a University of Toronto law professor, says the issue is the “lack of direct input of Indigenous communities” into the way police forces are run and their officers trained.
In Canadian communities large and small, many First Nations, Inuit and Métis people live the reality of being over-policed and under-policed at the same time.
Witness yet another report on the issue, by Ontario’s former police review director Gerry McNeill. His probe into allegations of racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service concluded that systemic racism was indeed present — something every First Nations person in Thunder Bay has said for decades — and made 44 recommendations, including reopening investigations into the deaths of nine First Nations people.
The strained relationships throughout northern Ontario are no stranger to Sioux Lookout.
The video also shows the OPP officer kneeling on the crying youth’s back as he puts her in handcuffs. (Yes, her — unknown to the person making the video, the person who has just been arrested is a girl.) “He just threw him down, face first into the cement,” the unseen narrator says. “Is this normal?”
Now there’s a question. Is this normal? Who gets to decide what’s normal in our society when it comes to matters of race and justice?
The video continues. “There’s three more cops coming to help him! He is just a little boy! Two more! There are five cops coming. They are running. He is just a little boy.” The suspect is dragged to her feet.
One of the other officers approaches the camera and asks, respectfully enough, if the video-maker saw what happened. But when the arresting officer also approaches, the tone shifts.
“I’m going to need your guys name for when she goes to court,” he says. “And I will have to do a warrant on the phone because you have been recording the entire time.”
“I was just looking to make sure she would be all right,” the voice behind the camera says.
“Why wouldn’t she be all right?” the officer shoots back. “I’m here to help people, ma’am.”
And on it goes. Watch the video and judge for yourself how helpful this all seems.
It will take a mountain of social change before we get to the point where these videos aren’t necessary. But the hope is that one day, all who live in this country will finally get to a place where the circumstances they document no longer occur.
That is the dream. The day when interactions like the ones we keep seeing are not considered anything like normal.
Tanya Talaga is a Toronto-based columnist covering Indigenous issues. Follow her on Twitter: @tanyatalaga