On a police board, ethnic representation matters

When the province reduced the Indigenous representation on the board overseeing the police, the move was not viewed on a solely symbolic basis.

The Pallister government wanders into a minefield with its police-board changes

The Pallister government's decision to revoke Leslie Spillett's membership on the Winnipeg Police Board effectively reduced Indigenous representation on the oversight body. (CBC)

As Manitoba's new governing party, Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservatives can and should be expected to shake up the makeup of various public boards and committees.

In early May, within weeks of the provincial election, the Tories replaced Manitoba Hydro's NDP-appointed board with a group of its own choosing. The following week, the PCs disassembled and reassembled the boards of two other Crown corporations, Manitoba Public Insurance and Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries.

These boards now include several people who can be described as loyal PC supporters. Former Tory Keewatinook candidate Edna Nabess sits on the MPI board, former provincial party leader Stu Murray and MLA Mavis Taillieu help direct Liquor & Lotteries and past party donors sit on both of these boards.

There's nothing unusual about such appointments, as political parties only appoint people they know and trust to boards. The fact that many of the new Crown-corporation board appointees are well-known and highly accomplished Manitoba citizens also helps to blunt any criticism of partisan appointments. 

No credible critic, for example, would question the qualifications of Manitoba Hydro's new board chair, philanthropist and Richardson Financial CEO Sandy Riley, or those of new Liquor & Lotteries board chair Polly Craik, an entrepreneur who once led CentreVenture's board.

In other words, the Tories are capable of installing new Crown corporation boards that are both qualified and partisan. But while this may work for the Crowns, it may not be effective as a one-size-fits-all strategy.

On July 6, the Pallister government chose to replace the two provincial appointees on the Winnipeg Police Board. Gone are two NDP appointees, Indigenous inner-city activist Leslie Spillett and retired educator Angela Ramkissoon. In their places, the Tories appointed former provincial PC and federal Conservative candidate Allie Szarkiewicz and businessperson Larry Licharson.

The net result of the changes — made before the end of Spillett and Ramkissoon's terms — is there is now one fewer Indigenous person on the Winnipeg Police Board.

This is not just a matter of numbers. The police board oversees the Winnipeg Police Service, a municipal department of disproportionately large importance to the city's Indigenous community.  

Compared to Winnipeg's overall population, Winnipeg's Indigenous residents are more likely to live in less safe neighbourhoods and thus are more likely to require the services of the police, who are also at the forefront of the city's reconciliation efforts.

In recent years, Winnipeg's police changed its "serve and protect" mission into a "building relationships" motto that's emblematic of a more inclusive approach to policing. As well, former chief Devon Clunis' acknowledgement of the effects of centuries of colonialism went a long way toward improving relations between the police and the Indigenous community.

So when the province reduced the Indigenous representation on the board overseeing the police, the move was not viewed on a solely symbolic basis. There are fears fewer Indigenous perspectives on the board will result in less attention paid to the concerns of Indigenous Winnipeggers.

So far, the Pallister government seems unwilling or unable to acknowledge this. Asked to comment on their changes to the police board, the Progressive Conservatives would only release a statement from Justice Minister Heather Stefanson, highlighting the qualifications of new board appointees Szarkiewicz and Licharson.

In an interview, Szarkiewicz suggested police-board members need not be Indigenous to advocate for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Winnipeggers.

"Just because I'm white doesn't mean I'm not going to be a strong voice for the people of Winnipeg, Indigenous included,"  she said.

"I'm very familiar with poverty and the struggle that new Canadians and or Aboriginal [people] or any person goes through," she added, noting she grew up as an immigrant in the North End. "I can honestly say, 'Been there done that.'"

The notion that non-Indigenous Canadians can advocate just as effectively for the Indigenous community probably comes from a noble place, but it's not realistic, considering the country's history of colonialism and paternalism. 

Less Indigenous representation also runs contrary to Mayor Brian Bowman's efforts to promote reconciliation in Winnipeg, which continues to suffer from ethnic divisions.

Asked how a whiter police board promotes reconciliation, Bowman was reduced to pointing out the province has the power to fill its two positions on the board however it likes.

Police board chairman Scott Gillingham, the councillor for St. James-Brooklands, took a similar tack, but also noted the board is advised by an Indigenous advisory council.

​It's possible some members of the new government on Broadway view issues of inclusion and representation as nothing more than political correctness. True enough, you don't have to be Indigenous to care about Indigenous people.

But to reduce Indigenous representation on the police board, without comment or explanation, is at best an invitation for criticism. At worst, it's a political miscalculation from a Progressive Conservative party that largely avoided courting similar controversy during its successful spring election campaign.


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.