British Columbia

Vancouver cop helps fellow officers understand Indigenous culture

Steve Hanuse is a 26-year VPD veteran who works with the Musqueam Band to build relationships and take a proactive approach to crime. He says a big part of his job is helping his fellow officers understand Indigenous culture and history.

Steve Hanuse works to build relationships, proactively tackle crime and educate colleagues

Steve Hanuse serves with the Vancouver Police Department's canine unit. (Steve Hanuse)

The first time Vancouver cop Steve Hanuse had to stand up and speak at a community forum, it brought back bad memories.

Hanuse, an Indigenous officer, was asked by his superiors at the Vancouver Police Department to speak at a 1998 forum reaching out to the city's Indigenous communities, who were furious over the recent death of Frank Paul.

Paul was a 48-year-old Mi'kmaq man who died of hypothermia and exposure in 1998 after he was dumped in an alley by police.

He says the way those at the forum vented their rage at his colleagues was upsetting.

"I remember me saying, 'I feel like I was in Grade 5 as a young Aboriginal child who was brushed with stereotypes: you're Aboriginal; you're lazy; you're drunks — all of those negative connotations," he said.

"It wasn't OK as a young Aboriginal, and I said, it's not OK right now, as a police officer ... to brush us all with that brush: that we're all violent, we're all racist. I don't agree.

"I remember I was close to tears because it really did resonate with me how close I felt to being that kid in school."

Hanuse says he was a young cop then. Today, he is a 26-year veteran who works with the Musqueam Band to build relationships and take a proactive approach to crime.

But a big part of his job is to help his fellow officers understand Indigenous culture and history.

'A black mark on our department'

The death of Frank Paul brought the department's relationship with the Indigenous peoples it serves into sharp focus.

No officers were charged, but an inquiry found the justice system failed him.

A police surveillance video shows an officer dragging Frank Paul on Dec. 5, 1998. Paul would later die of hypothermia and exposure. ((Vancouver Police Department))

"It was a black mark on our department. We wore it. We admitted it was wrong," Hanuse said. "Yes, there are bad dynamics that happen, but, yes, there are also those working hard to change."

The aftermath of Paul's death sparked a new focus on Indigenous issues from the VPD, including Hanuse's work.

Listen to Hanuse and others discuss the relationship between police and Indigenous communities:

Optimistic about change

Hanuse is a member of the 'Namgis First Nation, but his ancestry didn't automatically make him an expert on Indigenous issues.

It was only through exploring the effects of intergenerational trauma, including residential schools and other racist policies from governments that involved police, that Hanuse says he understood some of the disconnect between police and Indigenous communities.

He also began to understand how intergenerational trauma affected his own life.

"It was like a light bulb went off. It was the big elephant in the room," he said. "Growing up, my parents were alcoholics. I spent a lot of time taking care of my siblings, and 15 years later is only when I started to think about the intergenerational effects.

"I can understand why Canadians don't understand: if I can't understand, how can they?"

Hanuse says he's optimistic that education will eventually breed understanding and change in the ranks of police forces.

Steve Hanuse is a 26-year Vancouver Police Department veteran who works with Musqueam First Nation — and on educating his colleagues. (Steve Hanuse)

With files from CBC Radio One's The Early Edition