Peguis First Nation man files complaint against Winnipeg police after alleged racial profiling
Invitations to Winnipeg Police Service officers to take part in sharing circle turned down, group says
A Peguis First Nation man has filed a complaint against Winnipeg police, alleging they racially profiled and wrongfully detained him last month.
The First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba said Thursday a complaint has been filed with the Law Enforcement Review Agency after the Winnipeg Police Service turned down an invitation for the officers to take part in a sharing circle.
According to the secretariat, at about 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 3, police were called about a disturbance at a Winnipeg hotel where Junior Cochrane was working as an ambassador for the organization, which supports health and well-being initiatives for 63 Manitoba First Nations.
He said he was performing a routine patrol that evening as part of his duties for the secretariat when he noticed two police cars pass by in the parking lot.
Cochrane, 41, continued walking along the side of the building. When he turned a corner, a number of officers emerged from vehicles, he said.
When asked where he was going and what he was doing, Cochrane told them he was working.
He said police questioned that explanation, and when he reached for his phone, officers reached toward their gun holsters.
"I put my hands up and said, 'I am just trying to grab my phone,' and they said, 'Don't move,'" Cochrane said during a Thursday news conference.
Officers alleged he fit the description of someone accused of assaulting the hotel building manager. They then handcuffed and put him in a police vehicle, Cochrane said.
After a search on their in-vehicle computer, Cochrane says officers pulled up an old photo and file on him from about 20 years ago. He said an officer remarked that Cochrane hadn't "been in trouble in a real long time."
"They sounded really surprised about that," he said.
"They kept asking, 'How much did you have to drink, how much did you have to drink?'" Cochrane said, adding he wasn't drinking. "I said, 'I expect an apology from you guys when you find out you got the wrong guy.'"
Cochrane said police went into the hotel to speak with employees. When they emerged, they uncuffed him and let him go, he said.
One officer said they had "the wrong guy," and another then apologized to him, said Cochrane.
"I said, 'Thank you, I accept your apology,'" he said. "I was pretty upset at the other officers and I didn't say anything else."
'We were hurt'
The First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba's Brenda Sanderson called the incident "completely inappropriate."
"Everyone was quite shocked," said Sanderson, who leads the secretariat's Turtle Team, which has been operating for about a year. It provides support primarily for First Nations people from remote northern communities who travel to Winnipeg for a variety of reasons, including health care.
"My first thought was racial profiling. We were angry, we were hurt and really wanted to address what had happened."
Sanderson said she reached out and offered officers a chance to take part in a sharing circle in order try to understand each other.
"We wanted to do it in a good way," she said. "That hasn't happened."
Upon inviting the officers to take part in a sharing circle, the secretariat was told by Winnipeg police that "their legal and union advisers advised against this remedial process as instructed by those officers involved," according to a statement from the secretariat.
Neither the Winnipeg police nor the Law Enforcement Review Agency would confirm details of the complaint.
In an email, LERA commissioner Andrew Minor said it is within the purview of the agency to investigate allegations of "abuse of authority, including differential treatment without reasonable cause on the basis of any characteristic" set out in the Manitoba Human Rights Code.
Black River First Nation Chief Sheldon Kent commended Cochrane for speaking up.
"It takes a tremendous amount of courage to step forward when injustices happen," said Kent, who is also chairperson of the secretariat. "We can't tolerate this anymore.... This is not new."
Kent pointed to the case of J.J. Harper, a former Island Lake Tribal Council executive director, who was shot to death by Winnipeg police in 1988. The officer was cleared.
The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, which later found the investigation into that shooting to be "inadequate" at best, later emerged to investigate racism in the justice system.
The inquiry made nearly 300 recommendations, including a call for cross-cultural training for police and justice officials and other ways of dealing with racism in the system.
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Kent said the refusal of police to take part in a sharing circle in this case shows there is still "no openness to have an open conversation."
"The purpose is we want to co-exist, we want to live in a place where we feel safe," he said. "Instead our people are far too often treated like this, and it's not acceptable."
With files from Rachel Bergen