Ottawa

Ottawa police now calling officer's posts about Annie Pootoogook 'racist'

The top brass of the Ottawa Police Service is now openly using the word "racist" to describe the comments posted online by one of their officers in relation to the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook.

Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar made comments online from his Facebook account

Annie Pootoogook works on her art on July 10, 2013, in Ottawa. (Alexei Kintero)

The top brass of the Ottawa Police Service is now openly using the word "racist" to describe the comments posted online by one of their officers in relation to the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook.

Superintendent Don Sweet called out the comments in an interview outside a conference on racialized youth and the justice system on Friday.

"I think, for us, obviously those comments are racist and it's accepted as the chief has said," Sweet said.

In an interview with APTN one day earlier, Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau called Sgt Chris Hrnchiar's posts "racist" for the first time, after weeks of criticism for using softer language such as "inappropriate" or containing "racial undertones."
Superintendent Don Sweet calls an officer's comments on the death of Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook "racist." (CBC News)

Pootoogook was found dead in the Rideau River on on Sept. 19. The Ottawa Police Service's major crime unit, which investigates homicides, continues to probe "suspicious elements" about the case — but have not classified her death as a homicide.

A few days after her body was identified, Hrnchiar posted in the comments section of an Ottawa Citizen story that her death "could be a suicide, accidental, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned, who knows."

In a second post, Hrnchiar, an officer in the forensic identification unit, wrote "much of the Aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers." The comments have since been deleted.

Hrnchiar remains on active duty

Hrnchiar remains on active duty as the force conducts an internal investigation into his comments.

Sweet, who adjudicates cases of officer misconduct under the Police Services Act and oversees criminal investigations, expects the internal investigation to conclude within the "next couple of weeks."

He said the professional standards unit is taking a deep dive into Hrnchiar's work history.

"We'd be looking at what is the fundamental cause of the comments and does this officer need some training, does he need other resources for him if there are further issues. It will be comprehensive." 

This is an opportunity not just for the officer, but for others to learn from.Superintendent Don Sweet, Ottawa Police Service

Sweet added that if other allegations of racism surface, they will become part of internal investigation, as well.

Even though Hrnchiar remains on the job, Sweet said he will be disciplined once the investigation is complete.

Hrnchiar is facing the possibility of a permanent mark on his record, docked pay, a demotion, a suspension — or even getting fired. He could also be offered counseling.

Sweet says it's likely Hrnchiar's discipline will involve restorative justice measures, in which Indigenous and Inuit elders explain to him why his comments were offensive and hurtful.

"I know for a fact, without getting into the details, that's a component we're looking at. This is an opportunity not just for the officer, but others to learn from," Sweet said.

Force's morale down

Sweet said he can't guarantee that training will be extended to the wider force. Race relations training, like mental health training, isn't mandatory and Sweet emphasized that staff shortages make it difficult to free up officers to take courses.

Meanwhile, Hrnchiar's posts, and the July death of Abdirahman Abdi after what witnesses describe as a violent arrest, continue to affect morale in the force, said Sweet.

"Officers feel challenged. With a lot more of what we see in the States, and some of the recent incidents here, they want the public to know that they do their jobs well and that these are miniscule amount of issues compared to the thousands of interactions they have."

But Sweet knows that trust is tough to earn and easily lost. The superintendent was interviewed at the St. Laurent Complex in Vanier where more than 100 people, nearly all from Ottawa's black Francophone community, gathered to discuss how to hold police accountable. 

Participants told stories of police harassment and unfair treatment, as Sweet and another senior officer listened. The officers also walked the audience through how to make a police complaint.

Senior Ottawa police officers explain to a predominantly black audience how to hold officers accountable. (CBC News)

About the Author

Judy Trinh

CBC Reporter

Judy Trinh is a veteran journalist with the CBC. She covers a diverse range of stories from breaking crime news to the #MeToo movement to human rights court challenges. Judy aims to be both critical and compassionate in her reporting. Follow her on Twitter @judyatrinh Email: Judy.Trinh@cbc.ca

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