Public hearing into policing in Edmonton brings back painful memories for Cree brothers

Last month, Rob Houle recounted for Edmonton’s city councillors a night in 2005 when, he says, officers assaulted him and his brother, locked them in a police van and drove them randomly around the city for over an hour.

Edmonton Police Service ‘has a long way to go to becoming a top-notch police service,' lawyer says

Rob Houle sits in the backyard of his Edmonton home as he shares his experience with city police, hoping his three children won't experience the same thing. (Kyle Muzyka/CBC)

Rob Houle sits in the backyard of his St. Albert home. His youngest boy floats around the yard. He has a short attention span but an insatiable curiosity. 

Houle, 36, is originally from the Swan River First Nation in northern Alberta. His hair is braided under a wide-brimmed beaded hat. He prefers the name Rob; Robert is his dad. 

He sits at ease in his backyard surrounded by the organized mess that comes with having three kids. 

He's gentle with his son even while sharing details about what he says was one of the most difficult moments of his life — an altercation with police that left him scarred.

On June 15, Houle faced Edmonton's city council to describe the night 15 years ago when, he says, he and his brother were assaulted by police officers and driven around the city in the back of a van for more than an hour.

He was one of 150 people to speak out on the role the Edmonton Police Service should play in the city. He came forward, he says, hoping his past relationships with council members — many who he worked alongside while working for the city — would encourage them to listen.

While the Edmonton Police Service says it is trying to identify the two officers involved in Houle's complaint, it has not responded to the allegations in this story, none of which have been proven in court.

A birthday celebration

It was April 2005, a couple months after Joel Houle's 18th birthday. He had driven three hours from Slave Lake, Alta., to go to the bar in Edmonton for the first time with his older brother, who he calls Robbie.

They went to Esmeralda Night Club, a bar on Kingsway Avenue. They were both fairly intoxicated when an altercation occurred inside the bar between Joel and another patron, Houle said.

Bouncers ejected the brothers without their coats.

Outside Joel became agitated, wanting to get his jacket. A short time later police rolled up.

Officers handcuffed and pepper sprayed his brother, Houle said. 

Because Joel didn't live in Edmonton, Houle worried about his brother and told police if they arrested Joel, they should arrest him too. 

Houle said he was put in an armbar and taken down, the officer putting a knee on his chest. Neither of the young men resisted, Houle said.

"Not having much kind of interaction with police and police authorities … [we were] kind of scared, worried what was going to happen," Houle said. "Once the officer has you on the ground and has all his body weight on your chest and you can't move, you can't breathe, can't do any of that stuff ... [I] just [felt] general terror."

Houle said they were placed in the back of a police van without explanation. Joel, who was crying in pain because of the pepper spray, lay face down on the floor of the back. Houle was sitting handcuffed on one of the benches. 

"I just remember them specifically saying, 'If you don't shut your mouth, we're going to drop you off outside of Edmonton,'" Joel said. "And they laughed."

The next hour or two were a blur, Houle said. Police drove the van around the city, braking hard and taking corners quickly. 

At one point Houle's head snapped back, hitting the wall. He fell face-first onto the floor beside his brother. 

"I can't remember whether or not I lost consciousness ... but I remember the pain," Houle said. 

Eventually, the officers asked Houle for his address and dropped them off at home. Neither man was charged.

Houle said he tried to file a complaint the next day, but police told him he needed the officers' names or badge numbers. 

Over time they began to think what they experienced was normal, blaming themselves for what happened.

"Stuff like that happens," Joel said he thought at the time. "What are you going to do?"

Over the ensuing years, the brothers struggled. Houle stopped going to university, eventually dropping out. Both brothers steered away from bars, enduring substance abuse that would last for years.

"This was one of the springboards that led both of us down a treacherous path," Houle said.

Eventually, both brothers got their lives back on track. Joel hardly drinks now, is a mechanic and has three kids.

Joel Houle says he has no trust in police and would rather not deal with them.  (Kyle Muzyka/CBC)

Houle even thought about becoming a police officer, thinking he could effect change from within. In 2015, he joined the police chief's Indigenous advisory board. 

That year he also filed an official complaint about the incident to the Professional Standards Branch, but the complaint was closed due to "abandonment," even though Houle says he repeatedly tried contacting the officer in charge. 

Last December he sought help from a lawyer and filed an official complaint with the police service.

The complaint, filed by Engel Law, details how Houle's experience in 2005 was part of a much larger problem within the Edmonton Police Service.

'Sweatboxes' and 'starlight' tours

In May 2005, three city police officers picked up nine Indigenous people on Whyte Avenue, holding them in the back of a police van equipped with six seats and dropping them off hours later in north Edmonton.

Though two officers, Const. Lael Sauter and Const. Patrick Hannas, were found guilty in 2010 of insubordination and discreditable conduct, the arbiter ruled that what had become known as the "sweatbox" case was not racially motivated. 

At the time, advocate Lewis Cardinal wondered if it was a version of a "starlight tour," a practice common in Saskatchewan where Indigenous men were picked up by police and dropped on the outskirts of town.

The case was just "the tip of the iceberg," he said. "[There were] a lot of unreported incidents of police violence and aggression and brutality.

"We wanted to bring light to the issue at the time that this is something that really needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed deeply."

Human rights advocate Lewis Cardinal was one of the leading activists criticizing police for their treatment of the nine Indigenous people picked up in the 'sweatbox' case. (CBC)

Cardinal said such incidents often went unreported because the victims had frequent run-ins with police — either due to their skin colour or to their socio-economic status — and feared retribution if they spoke out.

"There's a fear that's built into that," he said.

Cardinal has fought to expose police brutality and systemic racism within the EPS for decades.

He recalls an email widely shared among Edmonton police officers in 2005 titled "Mr. Socko's Ten Principals [sic] of Downtown Policing" which included transphobic, misogynist and racist language. 

In the email, Const. Scott Carter wrote "an Aboriginal is just an Indian," and that a police van unit, "should always be referred to as the mobile Native Friendship Center [sic]."

"That email was something that really brought attention to that issue and particularly underlined the culture of racism within the police force," Cardinal said. 

Around that same time, a downtown division police squad, known as C-2, was investigated after two former members alleged the squad was mistreating people experiencing homelessness in the inner city. 

Following the investigation, the squad was dismantled.

'A long way to go'

Tom Engel, a longtime defence lawyer in Edmonton who often handles cases involving alleged police misconduct, was at the centre of most of these cases.

He said 2005 was a year when most of the issues activists had known about came to the surface.

"[The police] had a lot of problems and they were well aware of them," Engel said. 

Edmonton lawyer Tom Engel was integral to many of the cases involving the Edmonton Police Service over the past 15 years. (Manuel Carrillos Avalos/CBC)

In an emailed statement, Edmonton police pointed to several of their initiatives, including their Indigenous engagement strategy, released in 2018.

They also said they work with an external consultant to review current practices and policies through the lens of reports like the Truth and Reconciliation 94 Calls to Action to improve their methods.

Engel said EPS has "improved dramatically," but notes it "has a long way to go to becoming a top-notch police service." 

Under the previous two chiefs of police — specifically under Chief Rod Knecht — punishment for officers found guilty of police misconduct increased to levels Engel said are more suitable for their actions.

It's led to fewer high-profile cases of police misconduct. However, the force is not yet without its faults.

"[Police officers] have to make it clear that they are not going to tolerate that kind of behaviour when they witness it," Engel said. 

Despite all the incidents that Engel has seen, he's still optimistic.

"Things are only going to get better," he said.

Lewis Cardinal too remains optimistic.

"If I wasn't positive and hopeful for change, then what am I supposed to do, live in that constant fear and that negativity?"

Despite what Rob and Joel Houle experienced in 2005, they believe things can change. 

Earlier this month, council voted to slash about three per cent of the estimated police budget in 2021, redirecting savings to support community development, housing and human services. 

Houle said the cuts don't go nearly far enough, but still remains hopeful it's a start.

He says the renewed discussion around the role of police in the community is encouraging.

His brother Joel says while he doesn't trust police, a new role for them could be a way forward.

Both are family men with Joel just adding a third child to his family, matching Rob.

It's why they're sharing their stories, they said.

"My wife and my kids are kind of the reason that I do what I do," Rob Houle said. "I [want] ... to be a better person and to make a better world for them."