North

Ottawa police can't be trusted to investigate Nunavut RCMP, argues MLA

A former Nunavut justice minister says Nunavut needs to terminate its contract with the Ottawa Police Service, arguing that an officer's racist comment about the late Annie Pootoogook shows the southern police service is unfit.

'To have a police force, investigate our own police, with those views is very troubling,' says MLA Paul Okalik

Paul Okalik says he wore a tie featuring Inuit art from Cape Dorset yesterday in honour of Annie Pootoogook. He says racist comments made by an Ottawa police officer after the Inuk artist's death show the Southern police department is not fit to investigate Nunavut RCMP. (Nunavut Legislative Assembly)

Former Nunavut justice minister Paul Okalik wants the territory to terminate its contract with the Ottawa Police Service and start its own civilian police oversight group, saying a sergeant's racist comments show the southern police force "cannot be trusted."

Right now, the Ottawa Police Service is contracted to conduct independent, external reviews of the Nunavut RCMP for cases involving potential police wrongdoing. 

Okalik says that shouldn't happen anymore.

"In our own territory, we represent the majority," Okalik told CBC News. "And to have a police force, investigate our own police, with those views, is very troubling."

Late last month, celebrated Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook was found dead in Ottawa.

A few days later, Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar commented on an Ottawa Citizen article about her death, saying "much of the Aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers."

Investigations shouldn't be 'shrouded' in mystery

The incident sparked widespread condemnation from the Inuit community both in Ottawa and across the Arctic, who were concerned that Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau didn't initially call the remarks racist. 

Okalik says Nunavut "held Ottawa police in good regard up until this latest event," but the comments were so inflammatory that action must be taken.

"I would like to see that we have a civilian body to investigate the force," he said. "It would be independent."

"It would not be shrouded in a cloud, where senior members of that force actually have racist views towards Aboriginal people." 
Sytukie Joamie (left) spoke about his cousin Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook at a rally on Parliament Hill. Many Inuit are concerned about racist comments made by a local police officer. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Okalik added that there are many qualified people in the territory, including former RCMP officers who understand the unique challenges of providing policing in the North. 

'Concerns about police investigating police'

The RCMP has an external investigation or review policy that covers cases in which:

  • a "serious injury or death" involves an RCMP employee, or;
  • an RCMP employee "may have contravened a provision of the Criminal Code or other statute and the matter is of a serious or sensitive nature."

In Nunavut, that's meant cases where young men die while in police custody or where officers are accused of using excessive force.

Civilian oversight bodies are common among major Canadian police services, but Nunavut does not have one. 
Nunavut Finance Minister Keith Peterson says his department is exploring the possibility of creating a civilian police oversight group in the territory. (Nunavut Legislative Assembly)

"I understand that process. I understand there's some concerns about police investigating police," said Keith Peterson, Nunavut's minister of justice. 

But Peterson would not go so far as to confirm the territory will establish an oversight body. 

"I'm not going to commit to anything. I want to do the research." he said. "It's the proper way for governments to proceed."

For now, Peterson says officials in the justice department are looking into how other jurisdictions handle external police investigations.

About the Author

Elyse Skura is a journalist at CBC Ottawa. Find her on Twitter at @eskura or contact her at elyse.skura@cbc.ca.