This interview is the last in a six-part series about rethinking the police.
Today, Indigenous people in Canada represent about three percent of the population, yet they comprise a staggering one third of inmates in jails and prisons across the country. It has become increasingly clear that racism in policing is at the core of these alarming statistics.
Erick Laming is from the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation, and a PhD candidate in criminology and sociolegal studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation looks at police use of force in Ontario and its impact on Black and Indigenous community members.
Laming spoke with Albina Retyunskikh from his home in Toronto.
Albina Retyunskikh: What is the current situation in regards to policing Black and Indigenous communities?
Erick Laming: Well, it’s not a good point in time right now, and honestly it really hasn’t been for a long time. Things are just more exposed in the media. We have more videos, more people coming forward, and more cases. This is just highlighting the issues between police and marginalized communities.
AR: Where do you think police funds would be better invested?
EL: That money can go towards lots of different types of community organizations. Obviously, we need to be looking at mental health, and having professions be part of the process in responding to a lot of these calls. One of the issues today is that there are inconsistent and incomplete reports about how police respond to calls when people are having a mental health episode. So we have to be really transparent and understand how often police respond to these types of calls, because quite often this is where they use force. And most of the time, these are cases when we don’t need a police response.
We can prevent individuals from going through the criminal justice process if we have trained mental health professionals who can appropriately respond to them. If somebody is having an emotional episode, we need people to just to talk to them and a lot of times that can de-escalate that situation without needing any support or backup from an armed officer.
If you get arrested, you remain stuck in the system; it’s a cycle that keeps repeating itself. We have problems that the police can’t solve, and we shouldn’t expect them to solve them either. We need leadership from our governments to identify and recognize these issues, to do something about them. Police are not able to deal with these cases, and they shouldn’t be expected to.
AR: Can you talk about some specific programs that can prevent people falling into the criminal justice system?
EL: One is called the Bear Clan Patrol, an organization that started in Winnipeg in the ’90s, and resurfaced over the last few years. There’s been over 35 communities that have adopted this type of program. They’re essentially Indigenous-led initiatives where a group of volunteer Indigenous peoples and some other non-Indigenous community members will go around to certain communities that have usually have issues with the police. They will pick up needles on the ground, and give food away to people who can’t afford it or who are struggling. They’re also just there to talk to the community members because at the end of the day, that’s what a lot of these members want. They don’t want to deal with police if they’re having an issue, they might just need somebody to talk to.
In a serious case, the patrol would call the police, and the police would respond to a violent situation. But again, this is a volunteer organization that is starting to get a little bit more support in terms of resources and financing. This is where money could be going. We need to have more of these types of programs to expand across Canada in urban areas where Indigenous peoples are forgotten about. And not just Indigenous community members: you could look at other marginalized communities and have this type of program or volunteer initiatives that do these things.
AR: Racial profiling is a big issue when police stop Black people. Is that an issue in Indigenous communities as well?
EL: From evidence we have, yes. We have street checks and we know that Black and Indigenous people in many cities are stopped and searched and targeted, and they’re more overrepresented in these statistics compared to white people. And sadly, we don’t really know their lived experiences. In my research, I’ve been able to interview a lot of community members. They are constantly targeted or harassed, and it really breaks down that trust.
Another issue is that there’s a lot of talk about hiring more First Nations or Indigenous police officers. You could try that, but the evidence doesn’t really suggest that diversifying the police force is going to change anything. Because a lot of the time, it’s a cultural kind of influx that happens once you get into the policing subculture.
But then you can look at other areas, like reserves, for example, where we have standalone First Nations police services where most of those officers are from that community. They’re Indigenous, so they can actually handle what goes on in those communities much more effectively than a white police officer. Many white police officers don’t know what these people go through. They might be trained well, but training can only go so far. You have to be able to put yourself in those shoes. A lot of times, police officers lose patience, or even get scared in the situation, and that can escalate a situation very quickly.
More on Broadview:
- This Montreal father is fed up with racial profiling by police
- Priscilla Settee on building a better social safety net
- Black churches in U.S. mobilize against alleged voter suppression
AR: Looking at what has been happening for the last few of months in the wake of George Floyd’s death, how do you think recent events are changing the way that we approach these conversations? Do you think change is possible?
EL: I’m trying to be hopeful. As a researcher, it’s hard…I’m just skeptical by nature. These are just issues that have been around for so long. The exact same thing that happened to George Floyd happened to Eric Garner in 2014. There were protests, and outrage, and at the end they implemented body cameras. But the situation didn’t really change. Now, at least, the issue is not confined to the U.S., and we see a global movement.
We need to keep having those conversations and the public needs to be part of this process and keep demanding that change. I don’t think we will see change overnight, and we have to be patient with it. Furthermore, a lot of the people from the communities I speak to have complained about the police, and those complaints are often deemed unsubstantiated and they’re thrown out. So it pushes the trust away even more, not just in relation to the police, but in the system in general.
So yes, there’s a lot of voices we need to start listening to. If we do that, we can at least say we’re trying, we’re doing something positive, but if we keep ignoring those voices, or not including them, then we’re just going to keep repeating this cycle. The police really need to be open and start seeing the problem, instead of pretending like there are no issues here.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Albina Retyunskikh is a writer based in Montreal.
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