‘Enforcers of the colonizers’: Wet’suwet’en crisis casts spotlight on long, difficult history between RCMP and Indigenous peoples

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The North West Mounted Police in Lethbridge, Alberta in 1885. The origins of the police force began as a paramilitary group that often treated Indigenous peoples violently.


They were the images that Terry Teegee did not want to see.

In the pre-dawn darkness of Feb. 6, Mounties descended on a snow-covered forest road in northern B.C. where supporters of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to a natural gas pipeline had set up camp.

As images of the raid and arrest of six people spread on social media, it triggered waves of protests and blockades across Canada and brought up memories from a year ago, when heavily armed RCMP stormed through a barricade and arrested 14 people in a similar raid that grabbed international attention.

Teegee, B.C. regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says he got on the phone and asked senior RCMP officials to consider alternatives. “Do you really need to arrest people?”

While Teegee is grateful to have open communication with the Mounties, he admits he can’t help but feel an element of distrust and suspicion.

“There’s a very strained relationship with RCMP in Canada and Indigenous peoples,” he says.

Teegee, a member of the Takla Lake First Nation near Prince George, says Mounties are known in his community as nilhchuk-in, “those who take us away.”

It’s a reference to the Mounties’ historical role in removing Indigenous children from their homes and placing them in residential schools. “We describe them as these people who took our children, stole our children.”

A member of the Mohawk Tyendinaga nation walks past a sign as they block the CN tracks in Tyendinaga, Ont. earlier this month

The complicated, fragile relationship between Mounties and Indigenous communities — characterized over the years by encouraging acts of reconciliation and dispiriting moments of tension — is now once again at a crossroads.

Though RCMP have since relocated their base of operations and suspended patrols in Wet’suwet’en territory in an “act of good faith” to allow Indigenous leaders and federal and provincial government officials to try to resolve the dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline, a tenuous backdrop remains.

“You see some positive movements in this relationship, but ultimately it’s very … what’s going on here is really testing that relationship,” Teegee says.

The RCMP’s history with Indigenous peoples dates back to the beginnings of the force itself.

Established in 1873 under Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, the police service was initially known as the North-West Mounted Police.

The force’s early relationship with Indigenous people has been the subject of “myth,” according to Steve Hewitt, a lecturer at Britain’s University of Birmingham who has written extensively on the RCMP.

“There’s the notion, increasingly challenged, that the Mounties played a protective role for Indigenous peoples, when in reality the Mounted Police were modelled after the Royal Irish Constabulary, a paramilitary colonial police force that the British used to control the Irish. In the Canadian case, the Mounted Police helped with the process of moving Indigenous peoples onto reserves to free up land for European settlers.”

In a recent online column, historian Sean Carleton, a professor at Mount Royal University, described a “long historical pattern of Canada using a “might is right” approach to suppress Indigenous resistance.” It’s an ugly history, he writes, that may be jarring to those Canadians who “cling to the mythology of the Mounties as red-coated riders who brought ‘law and order’ to the west.”

He cites many flashpoints over the decades.

There was the arrest in 1968 by RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police of a number of Mohawk citizens who had blocked a bridge near Cornwall, Ont., after the government decided to levy customs duties on goods brought back from the U.S.

In 1995, there was the deployment by RCMP of 400 tactical officers to Gustafsen Lake in B.C., where a group of First Nations Sun Dancers were locked in a dispute with a rancher over access to land.

And in 2013, there was the arrest by RCMP of some 40 Elsipogtog First Nation members in New Brunswick who blocked a road during a dispute over fracking activity in their territory.

It’s a far from exhaustive list.

While acknowledging that its relationship with Indigenous communities has at times been difficult, RCMP officials say they have been working to repair it.

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In an email this week, RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Caroline Duval outlined in detail many of the steps the force has taken to improve relations with Indigenous groups “based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership” and said the force was developing a Canada-wide “reconciliation strategy.”

“As we forge a new path towards change, mutual respect and trust, we cannot forget or minimize the errors of the past. This is the only way in which we can ensure we do not repeat past actions.”

Duval acknowledged that reconciliation efforts can be hampered “when our role as a law enforcement agency brings us into potential conflict with Indigenous peoples, land defenders and supporters.” But when a court injunction is issued, as happened with the blockades on Wet’suwet’en territory, the RCMP strives to take a measured approach, she said. The hope always is to reach a peaceful resolution, “without the need for police intervention.”

But one academic who has studied the policing of protest movements says he’s skeptical of these overtures given the RCMP’s “strong institutional culture” and failure to become a more demographically diverse force. (As of April 2019, the force consisted of 22 per cent women, 11.5 per cent visible minorities and 7.5 per cent Indigenous).

Jeffrey Monaghan, a criminology professor at Carleton University, said there’s a tendency for Indigenous demonstrators to receive more scrutiny and surveillance than non-Indigenous ones. It stems from a long-held policing bias — stretching back to colonial times — that views Indigenous communities as more prone to violence, aggressive and risky.

“Police culture is really hard to change. It’s highly ingrained,” he said. “These are really inbound, tight and fraternal organizations. The RCMP is at the forefront of that.”

Duval said the force has offered two official apologies for the role RCMP played in the Indian Residential School legacy. Last year, she noted, the RCMP announced a land swap with a private land owner in Regina to enable the transfer of a residential school cemetery — containing the graves of dozens of Indigenous children — to an Indigenous commemorative group.

Further, Indigenous committees have been set up nationally and regionally to advise senior RCMP leadership on the delivery of policing services in Indigenous communities. And all cadets at the training academy now participate in an interactive “blanket exercise” that teaches Indigenous history.

In what was described as a watershed moment in late 2015, Bob Paulson, then-commissioner of the RCMP, told a gathering of the Assembly of First Nations there were racists in his force and that he wanted to get rid of them. At the time, Indigenous leaders praised the top Mountie for his candour. The Star reported that AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde told the top Mountie his presence at the meeting was “starting to earn that trust and respect.”

In 2018, Brenda Lucki, Paulson’s successor, issued an apology to the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls at a national inquiry, saying “the RCMP could have done better.”

AFN Alberta regional chief Marlene Poitras said Friday these are all positive steps and is hopeful relations will improve.

In the village of Fort Chipewyan where she grew up, she says, RCMP officers have done a much better job of integrating themselves in the community.

But like her counterpart in B.C., she says it’s hard to erase the darker moments from her memory.

“RCMP have always been enforcers of the colonizers,” she said, adding that high incarceration rates of Indigenous people remain a top concern. (Just last month, Canada’s corrections watchdog released a report saying that the number of Indigenous people in federal custody had risen to 30 per cent).

There’s no question communication between Indigenous communities and police has improved, Teegee said. But “even though there has been great efforts made, it certainly hasn’t changed enough to make it a good and functional relationship.”

The news this week that the RCMP in B.C. had agreed to stop police patrols in Wet’suwet’en territory to allow hereditary chiefs and government officials to negotiate an end to the pipeline dispute is a constructive step, Monaghan said. But why did this take so long?

“I think they’re going to be stuck with these very colonial images of super-militarized police storming a barricade in remote Indigenous territory … for a long time.”





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