Disciplined Ottawa police sergeant makes amends at flotilla for Indigenous youth

Nine months after posting racist comments online about the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook, Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar is still trying to patch up his relationship with the Inuit and Indigenous communities.

'I want to make it better,' says officer who posted racist comments after Inuk artist's death

Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar, at the back of the canoe, paddles with Veldon Coburn during the 2017 Flotilla for Friendship in Ottawa. In between them is Napachie Pootoogook, the daughter of Inuk artist Annie Pootogook, whom Coburn adopted in 2014. (CBC)

Nine months after posting racist comments online about the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook, Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar is still trying to make amends.

"I want to make it better ... make myself a better citizen, make myself a better police officer," said Hrnchiar Wednesday afternoon at Ottawa's annual Flotilla for Friendship.

The event pairs Ottawa Police Service officers with Indigenous youth, and Wednesday's flotilla was the first held since Hrnchiar pleaded guilty last November for making the racist remarks.

Pootoogook, an acclaimed and influential Inuk artist whose drawings offered a contemporary take on her culture, was found dead in the Rideau River in September 2016.

In a post following her death, Hrnchiar wrote that "much of the Aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers." 

​Hrnchiar was charged with two counts of discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act — one for making racist comments, and one for commenting on an open investigation. He pleaded guilty to both counts.

Since then, Hrnchiar has reached out to various people in the local Inuit and Indigenous communities, including Veldon Coburn, who had adopted Annie's biological daughter Napachie in 2014 and brought Hrnchiar's remarks to the attention of the police.

"I really couldn't wait to meet him, and say 'Look, I'm sorry, I really didn't do well here,'" said Hrnchiar, before setting off on the canoe journey down the Rideau Canal with Coburn and his children.

"I have a new friendship out of it, And new understandings. And certainly I can learn a lot more from him than he can from me."

Coburn said that by bringing Napachie and his other children to the flotilla, he was doing his own small part to repair the relationship between police forces and Indigenous and Inuit communities.

"It's pretty strained — I wouldn't say it's the warmest of relationships. Things are happening across Canada and in other cities where it's particularly bad, like Thunder Bay," said Coburn.

"Having kids now, growing up here in Ottawa, it's important that I do what I can to make things a little bit better for them growing up. And when the Ottawa Police Service reaches out and says how can we help, what can we do to make it better — I'm not going to turn my back on that."

The flotilla concluded with a traditional Indigenous feast on Victoria Island.

Organizer Lynda Kitchikeesik Juden speaks at the 2017 Flotilla for Friendship in Ottawa on Aug. 9, 2017. (CBC)

With files from David Rockne Corrigan