RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson conceded before a group of First Nations leaders on Wednesday that there are racists inside his police force, a surprising admission welcomed by indigenous people, who say it is key to addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women.

"I understand that there are racists in my police force. I don't want them to be in my police force," Paulson said to chiefs and other First Nations delegates gathered in Gatineau, Que., for an annual three-day meeting organized by the Assembly of First Nations.

Paulson's candid response came after a First Nations chief confronted the top Mountie publicly, urging him to address racism within the force.

"We encounter racism every single day," said Grand Chief Doug Kelly, leader of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in British Columbia. "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," Kelly said.

The exchange between the two men came a day after the federal government announced the first phase in a process that would see a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women launched by next spring.

Paulson said the RCMP Act, which was updated for the first time in 30 years during the last Parliament, gives him and other commanding officers the authority to handle matters of discipline in a "very decisive" manner.

Canada's top Mountie said First Nations communities, many of which are policed by the RCMP, could even call him directly to report racist officers.

"I would encourage you all, though, to have confidence in the processes that exist, up to and including calling me if you are having a problem with a racist in your jurisdiction or any other problem.

"We have elaborate systems to bring accountability to those people that are trusted, and in some cases not trusted but who are in power to deliver policing services," Paulson said.

Tackling racism key to a public inquiry

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said Paulson's admission is key to addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women.

"I think it's about time. This is a problem that we, at the grassroots level, have known this for a very long time," Lavell-Harvard said in an interview.

Lavell-Harvard said while stories of indigenous women being the targets of abuse at the hands of police have recently come to light in Val-d'Or, Que., indigenous women have been reporting incidents of abuse inside police ranks for years, only to be "brushed off."

"If they are going to stand at the top brass and say that they are committed to addressing the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, then they need to make sure that they're owning that.

"If we're going to be able to implement real change … to make our women and girls safe, then it has to be a significant part of the inquiry because it is right now a significant part of the problem," Harvard said.

AFN Special Chiefs Assembly

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the AFN assembly on Tuesday, where he laid out his top 5 priorities for renewing Canada's relation with its indigenous peoples.
  • Former prime minister Paul Martin addressed the AFN assembly Wednesday, speaking to the chiefs about funding for First Nations education.
  • NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is scheduled to speak Thursday at 9:30 a.m. ET.
  • CBCNews.ca will carry Thursday's AFN assembly live.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said it was the first time Paulson had attended the assembly of chiefs and gave him credit not just for showing up but also for staying to address some of the concerns expressed by First Nations leaders such as Kelly.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde on racism in the RCMP8:09

"The mere fact that he was there is a positive, positive statement — that he wants to rebuild and repair any kind of damaged relationship that's there between the RCMP and First Nations people," said Bellegarde on CBC New Network's Power & Politics.

Bellegarde told CBC host Rosemary Barton that Paulson's admission was a first step in confronting racism head-on.

"It takes a very big man to do that," said the national chief.

Indigenous women 'shockingly' over-represented

Earlier, in his speech to the group, Paulson updated First Nations on the RCMP's efforts to address the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women.

"Of course this is nothing short of a national tragedy. The problem is clear and it's settled," Paulson said. "Indigenous women and girls in this country are shockingly over-represented in those classes of Canadians who experience violence, go missing or are murdered."

Paulson said the RCMP would listen to the families of missing and murdered indigenous women as the process to launch an inquiry officially gets underway.

"As we enter this first phase of the inquiry, we will listen to what you say and to what family members say and to what communities say need to be done."

"Until you can — as an investigator, as a police officer responding to a case — until you can understand the humanity and the hurt and the emotions that are tied up in these cases, you will not be able to bring justice."

"We can do better... and we will do better," Paulson said.

Paulson said since the RCMP's last report into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, the RCMP has undertaken a number of new initiatives, including:

  • Developing a "comprehensive strategy" around missing persons investigations, including providing "supervisory oversight" along the way.
  • Ensuring greater compliance with a policy that requires investigators to treat every complaint of missing persons as though foul play was involved "until it can be objectively demonstrated that there is not."
  • Requiring that investigators engage with the victims' families.
  • Reviewing and revamping all RCMP policies to ensure greater accountability.

That same RCMP report found that indigenous women are most frequently killed by someone they know, be it their spouse or a member of their community.

The chief from British Columbia disagreed with those findings and reserved some of his strongest criticism for Paulson, who had acknowledged earlier in his remarks that not everyone agreed with the data or the RCMP's interpretation of it.

"I don't like the fact that aboriginal men were blamed. We were blamed for all the violence against our women.

"We knew that wasn't the case, but somebody informed the government of the day that we were responsible. That was you or somebody in your employ that did that," said Kelly.

"Shame on you Mr. Paulson."

With files from CBC's Connie Walker