Racism in Winnipeg: How do police treat Indigenous and black men? Panel weighs in

Some black and Indigenous Winnipeggers say they have experienced some sort of racial profiling by police, even though the head of the city's police union says racism is not a problem in the police force.

CBC panellists discuss how they've been treated by police

Charlie Crow, left, Rob Wilson and Karmen James Omeasoo, also known as Hellnback, speak to the CBC's Ismaila Alfa as part of a panel discussion on racism and police on Monday. (CBC)

Some black and Indigenous Winnipeggers say they have experienced some sort of racial profiling by police, even though the head of the city's police union says racism is not a problem in the police force.

A panel of three men weighed in on comments made last week by Maurice Sabourin, president of the Winnipeg Police Association, in light of violent shootings involving black men and police in the United States.

Sabourin said despite what some people claim, he does not see racial tensions between officers and different ethnic groups.

"There's always going to be a certain percentage of the population that is racist. I think we're never going to be able to mitigate all of that, but for the most part I believe our members are very well-trained. We do have many policies in place to deal with bias-free policing and so on so forth," Sabourin said.

But those on the panel told the CBC's Ismaila Alfa about the times they've been pulled over by police in Winnipeg — incidents that they believe happened because of how they look.

"There's certain incidents when I was with a group of friends and we got pulled over and [it's] 'Everybody get out of the vehicle and get on the ground, on your knees, this and that' and you know, I'm just coming home from work," said Karmen James Omeasoo, an Indigenous hip-hop artist who goes by the name Hellnback and works with at-risk children in remote communities.

Omeasoo said he's been pulled over by police whenever he drives around with a group of friends, but it's something he has become used to.

"It's so normal that I don't look at Winnipeg as a racist city because it's just like it's almost just normal," he said. "That's just the normal-ness of it."

Panel responds to Winnipeg Police Association remarks

6 years ago
Duration 2:03
A panel of Winnipeg men respond to remarks made by the Winnipeg Police Association, who said racism is not a problem within the police force.

'It was a mistake'

Robert Wilson, a youth advocate and Grammy-nominated Christian hip-hop artist known as Fresh I.E., said he was pulled over by police five times in one year, but no charges came out of any of the incidents.

Wilson, who is black, recalled one incident that continues to haunt him, in which police assumed he was a car thief. He said he was pulled over as he was driving with a young man who had not been in trouble with the police before.

"I realized after … the cops surround me with their guns out and screaming at me, pulling the youth out the car with me and stuff, that they actually pulled me over because of the way I looked, and so it was definitely profiling at that time."

He added, "In the end they said, 'We apologize, we entered the wrong plate number and it was a mistake,' after all the ruckus in front of everybody."

Charlie Crow, a University of Winnipeg student and a founding contributor to the Indigenous magazine Red Rising, said he has had very good interactions with police officers. At the same time, he agrees that negative experiences Indigenous people have faced with police have become "normalized" in a way.

"We have to go back and see how it's systemic, it's the way they document Indigenous people … they build the idea of the other," he said.

Crow said there tends to be over-policing with regards to Indigenous people, but not enough resources offered when people need help.

Panel discusses what they would tell youth about police

6 years ago
Duration 2:54
A panel of Winnipeggers speak with the CBC's Ismaila Alfa about what they would tell Indigenous and black youth about relations with police.

What to tell young people?

Sabourin acknowledged that not everyone would agree with him, especially after Maclean's magazine published a controversial article last year calling Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada.

"There are obviously ... self-proclaimed community leaders that would claim that there is racism within the Winnipeg police. I don't think you're ever going to convince some of those people otherwise, but the unfortunate thing is that it's groups like that that create hatred towards the police," he said.

Omeasoo said he would never tell young people not to trust the police, but he believes many Indigenous youth will experience their own bad experiences at some point.

"If anybody's going to turn anybody against the police, it would be their own actions towards somebody, not something that I would say," he said.

"I can be warning kids as much as they can but it's just going to happen to them … regardless of their age, where they're from, whatever. If you got a certain type of skin colour or if you're hanging around a certain type of people, it's going to happen to you."

When asked what advice he would give to police, Wilson said he would suggest "bringing back the word 'service' to the police service."

"Start serving the community, go and be with the people and start serving the community, as they're supposed to protect and serve," he said.

As for the future, Wilson and Omeasoo fear race relations in the United States may not improve anytime soon, but the emergence of social media will help keep the issue in the spotlight.

"I don't think it's going to get any better. It's going to get a little bit more worse before it gets better, that's for sure," Wilson said.

"That's a horrible statement to say, but it's true," Omeasoo said. "It's going to get worse before it gets better."

Panel on the future of race relations in the U.S.

6 years ago
Duration 2:13
A panel of three Winnipeg men weigh in on whether race relations in the United States will improve after last week's shootings, and what advice they would give to police forces.