North

'We can exist without the RCMP': What defunding police might look like in N.W.T.

Amid worldwide protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality, the call to defund the police has become a rallying cry. But what would that mean in the Northwest Territories?

'Our people lived for generations without RCMP,' says K'asho Got'ine self-government negotiator

Multiple police officers attended an anti-racism rally last week outside Yellowknife's police detachment. The idea of defunding the police is neither new, nor extrodinary, says Dëneze Nakehk’o, a founding member of Dene Nahjo. (Walter Strong/ CBC)

They say it doesn't have to be this way.

"People are suffering right now, and in some cases, dying," says Daniel T'seleie, chief negotiator of the K'asho Got'ine self-government agreement and former lawyer from Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. 

T'seleie is talking about the suffering and deaths of Black and Indigenous people in Canada at the hands of police as a result systemic racism.   

But, T'seleie says, it doesn't have to be this way — not in the North.

"Our people lived for generations without RCMP," he says. 

"Our people functioned as nations with governance structures and our own laws for a long time before Canada even existed. 

"So it has been done. It can be done. We can exist without the RCMP and achieve those objectives of community safety."

Amid worldwide protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality, sparked by the murder in May of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a Minneapolis, Minn., police officer, the call to defund the police has become a rallying cry. 

To be sure, those words — "defund the police" — have been interpreted differently, from cutting police budgets to abolishing police altogether. In whatever reading, though, it includes rerouting police funds toward social services, like housing and mental health care, which also protect public safety.

Ambe Chenemu addresses a crowd before Yellowknife's anti-racism rally in solidarity with Black Lives Matter earlier this month. (Walter Strong/ CBC)

To Ambe Chenemu, an organizer of last week's anti-racism rally in Yellowknife, defunding the RCMP doesn't mean disbanding it. 

He wants police funding diverted toward "the appropriate jurisdictions where we have mental health professionals that can directly deal with these types of situations, and de-escalate them, just so they don't end in a tragedy." 

RCMP's history as agents of colonialism

The RCMP are a relic of the harmful project of colonialism, and for many, today's force can't be divorced from its history of pushing Indigenous people off the land and onto reserves, and of forcibly shuttling Indigenous children off to residential schools, says Dëneze Nakehk'o, a Northwest Territories journalist, educator and founding member of Dene Nahjo.

Nakehk'o supports defunding the RCMP, an idea which he says is neither new, nor extraordinary. 

"These conversations have been going on for a long time, especially in Black and Brown communities."

In the Northwest Territories it would mean letting Indigenous communities determine how to protect themselves.

"The best thing to do … is basically start over — to dismantle these structures to come up with different ways of making sure that our communities are safe, and that people are dealing with each other in a good way," Nakehk'o said. 

"If anybody knows how to look after this place and look after the people, it's the people that are actually from here."

A protester carries a placard with the phrase 'Defund the police' on it during a rally in downtown Yellowknife in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on June 9, 2020. (Walter Strong/CBC)

T'seleie agrees.

"The history of RCMP operations in our communities and on our land was, in the earliest days, related to the objectives of colonialism," he said.

While their relationship with the RCMP has evolved over the decades, says T'seleie, Indigenous people in the North continue to be mistreated by police. 

"I know a lot of people who have had a lot of negative interactions with RCMP, and I know people who have called the RCMP and they have not been responsive," he says. "So the treatment that people receive currently, in a lot of cases, could be described as discriminatory."

The history of RCMP operations in our communities and on our land was, in the earliest days, related to the objectives of colonialism.- Daniel T'seleie, K'asho Got'ine self-government negotiator

Like Nakehk'o, T'seleie believes that with authority over community safety, and importantly, the full weight of their own laws, Indigenous governments could protect their people without the need for police. 

But in current self-government negotiations, the Criminal Code is off the table.

"It's ridiculous to think that we could defund the RCMP and achieve objectives of community safety without acknowledging that Indigenous nations need to have some jurisdiction over those areas of law," he says.

T'seleie adds that replacing the RCMP with an Indigenous police force would simply be shifting the colonial model of policing from one agency to another. 

"It's not just an issue of let's defund RCMP and let's let Indigenous communities create their own police force," he says. "It's an issue of what laws do those police enforce, how did they enforce them, and who makes those laws?" 

People gathered outside the Multiplex before the anti-racism rally in Yellowknife last week. 'If anybody knows how to look after this place and look after the people, it's the people that are actually from here,' says Dëneze Nakehk’o. (Walter Strong / CBC)

N.W.T. policing services budget increasing

The territorial minister of justice says she would "absolutely" have conversations with Indigenous governments interested in downloading certain responsibilities from the territorial Justice Department.  She didn't specify which responsibilities.

"We want to work with Indigenous governments and not against them and work in a way that's co-operative and creative in finding solutions that will better respect those communities," said Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek.

The RCMP provides policing services to the N.W.T. under a funding agreement reached with the federal government in 2012. This year, the territory's policing services budget is set to rise nearly $1.6 million, to $47.8 million. That amounts to a little bit more than $1,000 per N.W.T. resident.  

"We aren't really in the place to be defunding the RCMP," Wawzonek says, when asked whether she'd consider it. 

Because of the funding agreement, and because the RCMP is a national police force, she said that "in a very practical sense it's not really a conversation we're going to be having unilaterally."

'It has been done. It can be done. We can exist without the RCMP and achieve those objectives of community safety,' says Daniel T'seleie, chief negotiator on the K'asho Got'ine self-government agreement. (Facebook)

How much power the territory has over police spending is unclear. A 2012 press release announcing the police services agreement says the N.W.T., together with other provinces and territories, "will have influence over cost and service decisions in an ongoing and co-ordinated way throughout the life of the new contract."

Wawzonek, a practising criminal lawyer before becoming minister of justice, said she's heard more demands for establishing an RCMP detachment in small communities without one, than she has for removing police.

"Maybe this is a chance to say, 'Well, what can we actually do? You don't have an RCMP detachment. What do you need to be safer if we acknowledge that maybe putting in a detachment isn't the direction anyone wants to go right now?'"

'We've seen what's happened across the country'

Jamie Zettler, chief superintendent of the N.W.T. RCMP, says cuts to police funding are not on him to decide. "That's up to our government," he said.

The RCMP meets with the justice minister, and with communities, to set policing priorities and responsibilities, he says.

Last week, Zettler acknowledged that there is racism in the RCMP. The trust of Indigenous and Black communities is "very important to us," he says, but that building it up is an ongoing process. 

Jamie Zettler, chief superintendent of the N.W.T. RCMP, says the trust of Indigenous and Black communities is 'very important to us,' but that building it up is an ongoing process. (John Van Dusen/CBC)

"We've heard, we've seen what's happened across the country, in North America, and we continue to want to build those relationships," he said.

"We've come a long ways. We've got a long ways to go yet."

Wilbert Cook, executive director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, doesn't agree with defunding the Northwest Territories RCMP. Rather, he'd like to see police undergo more cultural sensitivity training.

"We don't want to take responsibility away from the RCMP," he said, adding that apart from a few officers, the RCMP generally do a good job.

Cook says any officer is invited to come visit the healing camp behind Yellowknife's Multiplex.

"They're welcome, whether they're on duty, or off duty."

 

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the policing services budget amounted to a little more than $1 million per person. In fact, it's a little more than $1,000 per person.
    Jun 17, 2020 7:18 AM CT

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