Edmonton

Alberta's top RCMP officer vows to stamp out systemic racism after denying it existed

Alberta RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki sidestepped calls for his resignation on Friday and vowed to eliminate systemic racism in his organization after previously denying it existed.

Criminal trial lawyers call for resignation of Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki

Alberta RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki apologizes for his earlier comments where he denied systemic racism in his organization. 1:16

Alberta RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki sidestepped calls for his resignation on Friday and vowed to eliminate systemic racism in his organization after previously denying it existed.

"It was never my intention to minimize anyone's experience or to hurt racialized or Indigenous people through my comments," said Alberta's top RCMP officer when asked by CBC News about calls for his resignation by the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association of Alberta (CTLA).

"I have personally learned much this week and I am completely committed to ensuring that I and the employees of the RCMP in Alberta continue the necessary work here in the province to eliminate systemic racism."

On Monday, Zablocki told a news conference in Edmonton he didn't believe there was systemic racism in policing in Canada. 

In a statement issued later, he walked back his claim, saying "racist individuals" can be anywhere in society and institutions and that had been acknowledged by the RCMP.

But Zablocki says his position has now changed after research and conversations with Indigenous leaders and colleagues. 

"These have been conversations that have challenged my perceptions and made it clear that systemic racism does exist in the RCMP," Zablocki said.

"We need to understand and learn, to challenge our assumptions, recognize racism for what it is and most importantly, hold our employees and organization accountable for racist attitudes and behaviours."

At a news conference hours earlier at Edmonton city hall, the CTLA called for reforms to overhaul systemic policing issues in Alberta. But they said it should start with Zablocki's resignation.

The CTLA — a 40-year-old organization that represents the interests of criminal and police accountability lawyers — also called for the resignations of RCMP officers involved in​ the violent March arrest of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam and senior officers who concluded the use of force was justified after reviewing the video.

If they don't resign they should be fired, the group insists.

Head of the CTLA's policing committee Tom Engel says the officer who tackled Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam should be charged. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Tom Engel, head of the CTLA's policing committee, said Zablocki and the senior officer who reviewed the video showing Adam's arrest — where an officer punched him after tackling him to the ground — have lost any moral authority to lead the RCMP, which is responsible for policing most Indigenous communities in Alberta. 

"Nobody would think that that is acceptable," he said. "Anybody looking at that video, any police officer, any Crown prosecutor looking at the video would say charge that officer ... that guy has to be taken out of duty. But that just doesn't happen in our system."

Engel said the federal government typically refers complaints to the body responsible for civilian oversight but changes are needed  because it can only make recommendations to the commissioner, rather than having the ability to conduct investigations or fire a police officer.

What's needed, Engel said, is an independent oversight body like the Law Enforcement Review Board in Alberta.

"We're demanding that there be immediate action to correct that. These are not complicated amendments. All they have to do is look at the Alberta Police Act and change it accordingly.

"It has to stop that police officers investigate themselves," Engel said, adding that the demand is supported by police chiefs and police unions.    

Engel said the underfunding of a system overwhelmed by complaints must also be addressed under the province's review of the police act, noting that the ASIRT investigation into Adam's arrest will take a year or more before charges could be laid.

Concrete changes needed

The CTLA is also demanding the creation of a pool of expert prosecutors to decide which cases are prosecuted.

"Too often it goes to a very junior prosecutor or prosecutors who are not expert in the area or perhaps prosecutors who don't have the courage to make tough decisions," Engel said.

The lawyers say concrete changes are needed immediately to ensure Alberta policing lives up to the expectations of all Albertans who marched in the streets by the thousands after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd.

"For someone in the position of leadership to deny that systemic discrimination exists in Canada when our Supreme Court has recognized it since the '90s, it's absurd," said CTLA member Richard Mirasty.

Mirasty is a Cree lawyer who spends the majority of time defending Indigenous Albertans.

"If you're in a leadership role like that and you can't recognize that, then perhaps it's time to go get somebody else who understands systemic racism."

Tipping point for Indigenous lawyer

For Mirasty, the RCMP's denial of racism and use of excessive force was the tipping point as his own memories from living in northwest Saskatchewan came rushing back.

Lawyer Richard Mirasty says there is a culture of police brutality because of the lack of accountability. (David Bajer/CBC)

As a teen, he said, RCMP officers put him in a chokehold on more than one occasion until he blacked out. Another RCMP officer pointed a service pistol to his head when he was 21.

Initially paralyzed by anger, Mirasty was soon motivated by a determination to speak up.

"I can understand the anger because I thought I had moved on from all of this stuff, but you never move on," he said, pointing to several recent deaths of Indigenous people at the hands of police.

"This happens regularly — a culture of brutality because they're never held accountable."

Among demands for reform, the CTLA says armed officers should no longer be the first to respond to mental health crises, which can easily turn deadly.

Lawyer Avnish Nanda noted that 30 percent of calls for service to Edmonton police were related to mental health and other social issues. He said a portion of the police budget should go toward hiring social workers and mental health experts.

"We don't need police officers arriving on scene escalating the situation," Nanda said.

The group also wants restrictions lifted that prohibit Albertans from suing police in provincial court. Nanda says the only option is to take the case to the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench where it's harder to navigate or retain a lawyer because of the damages awarded don't sustain the lawsuit.

"That will bring about a deterrence for police officers who may feel like well nothing's going to happen to me if I do something to an individual," Nanda said. 

Zablocki said RCMP would continue to build initiatives that would challenge assumptions and foster inclusion such as building a reconciliation strategy for the province.

He declined to comment on the video of Adam while ASIRT investigates.

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

Reporter

Andrea Huncar reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, youth at-risk and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

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