British Columbia·Reconcile This

'It's putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg': Indigenous leaders say police training inept, join calls to defund

While the Vancouver police and RCMP say they are highly trained to interact with marginalized communities, Indigenous people are joining calls to defund the police.

Vancouver police says officers take anti-racism training and do an excellent job

Patricia Barkaskas is Metis and a director at the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic. She believes that the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP need their funding scaled back and believes Indigenous people's rights need to be recognized for true reforms to happen.   (Maggie Macpherson)

As more cases surface about Indigenous people facing brutality at the hands of police, leaders are joining calls to defund the police, saying efforts like cultural sensitivity training are failing.

"It's like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg," says Urban Native Youth Association vice-president Matthew Norris. Cultural sensitivity training for city police and RCMP is inadequate for understanding Indigenous people's experiences, he adds. 

Norris, who is Nehithaw-Cree, is also part of a new group called the Vancouver Just Recovery Coalition that launched a campaign to defund the police this week, saying Canada needs to recognize Indigenous people's rights to determine how to protect themselves.

His group is concerned that police budgets will remain unchanged while many organizations that support vulnerable communities are facing cuts. That's a poor choice because the Vancouver Police Department, he says, does little to serve Indigenous people or their concerns. 

"There is a certain amount of fear [of police] from communities that are over-policed, and we need to see something new, with Indigenous youth at the table to decide what an effective system looks like," said Norris.

Matthew Norris is one of a growing number of Indigenous people joining calls to defund the police saying police services do little to uphold Indigenous communities, their rights and their interests. (Supplied by Matthew Norris)

In response to concerns about strained relations with Indigenous people, the Vancouver Police Department told the CBC that their "officers are highly trained and do an excellent job in responding as first responders."

Director Steve Schnitzer of the Justice Institute of British Columbia's Police Academy said that the VPD's current training to address anti-Indigenous racism is watching a 45-minute video called The Spirit Has No Colour about Indigenous relations with the police.

New recruits also take part in a one-day session that features Indigenous community members and elders speaking about the impacts of colonization.

Norris calls it "a paltry exercise."

'Woefully inadequate'

"I fail to see how these programs result in substantive change to an institution that has been criticized time and time again for its discriminatory behaviour ... clearly these programs do not work, and it's time to try something new," Norris said.

That something new, he said, needs to take Indigenous self-determination into consideration, where organizations that aim to support and protect Indigenous people are driven by their communities and funded at the same level as non-Indigenous organizations, something that is often not the case in Canada. 

It's something Métis lawyer Patricia Barkaskas agrees with.

"This is a conversation that the federal government should be having with Indigenous people and with Indigenous nations about what it is that they need, and it comes back to sovereignty," Barkaskas said.

Barkaskas who is also a director at the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic agrees with the goal of defunding police, but says Indigenous people also face discrimination and violence from other Canadian institutions such as child welfare and health care.

She also points to the RCMP's role in removing Indigenous children from their homes and Indigenous people from their lands — something she said continues today, including Wet'suwet'en people removed by the RCMP to make way for the Coastal Gaslink pipeline following a court injunction.

"We have a long history as Indigenous people with the RCMP as the military arm of the Canadian state that is meant to eradicate us, and those histories don't disappear," Barkaskas said.

As for the Vancouver police's assertion that their training is improving relations with Indigenous people, she disagrees.

"Clearly this training is woefully inadequate," she said. 

"Obviously a 45-minute video cannot even begin to cover the history and ongoing impacts of colonialism," she added.

She and Norris feel that while education is important, it is limited in the amount it can do to shift cultural and institutional racism within a police force.

Karen Joseph is the chief executive officer of Reconciliation Canada, an Indigenous-led organization that will provide new training to the Vancouver Police Department.  (Maggie Macpherson)

Ultimately she believes that Indigenous people's own laws, justice systems and governments must be recognized by all levels of governments in order for Indigenous people to be treated fairly by police.

"Indigenous Nations have our own ways of accountability and responsibility and those have existed for thousands of years," she said.

Still some Indigenous people are looking at institutional reform as a way to address police discrimination against Indigenous people. 

Others say more training is needed

Recommendations from the national inquiry looking into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada call for more anti-racism and anti-bias training and more culture and language training for officers. 

The VPD is now in talks with the Indigenous-led group called Reconciliation Canada to create more training for its officers. The force sought out the group after its officers handcuffed and detained a 12-year-old Indigenous girl and her grandfather who were trying to open a bank account at a branch of the Bank of Montreal in downtown Vancouver late last year.

"I think training can provide some level of motivation for individuals to make some substantiative changes," said Karen Joseph, the chief executive officer of Reconciliation Canada.

"Even though a system might exist that is inherently detrimental, the individuals can often lead changes if they are motivated," she added. 

Join CBC British Columbia for a virtual town hall about racism on June 17th at 7pm.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.