Few Indigenous officers among RCMP's higher ranks, data shows
WARNING: This story contains offensive language
When Carolyn Wagner joined the Mounties in 1986, the iconic bright-red serge and hat symbolized a path out of an unsatisfactory career with the Canadian military — not the dark history many Indigenous communities have associated with the RCMP.
The role the Mounties played in Canada's residential schooling system, for example, is "not what we were taught in depot," Wagner said, referring to her training years. Rather, the RCMP presented itself "as saviours of the Indigenous people."
Wagner originally joined the force in Surrey, B.C., but in 2000, she transferred to Drayton Valley, Alta., closer to home. By then, she had undergone a traditional adoption with the Blackfoot Nation at the Blood Reserve in Standoff, in southern Alberta, and was more sensitive to some of the problematic language used by members of the force.
For example, she recalled being told of a memo that had gone around her detachment in 1999 for a "cultural awareness camp."
"People wrote on that memo, 'I would never go on a hug-an-Indian course,'" Wagner said.
She recalled another episode in which two fellow officers parodied Indigenous ceremonial dancing while she was on the phone with her sister, making plans to attend a traditional Blackfoot Sundance. One was her supervising corporal at the time.
Wagner said he also had a habit of referring to one of the few people of colour in the detachment, a Black immigrant from Jamaica, with the N-word.
Wagner said she attempted to ignore the racism. But tired of discriminatory remarks and being denied a promotion, she quit in late 2001. In a detachment where the majority of her colleagues were white men, she felt there was nobody in whom she could confide.
New numbers obtained by CBC News through an access to information request show the picture has not improved much for the RCMP on the diversity front, particularly in the higher ranks.
Calls for more representation in upper ranks
There are 16 RCMP divisions across the country, but the Mounties do not publish data on the number of women, people of colour or Indigenous people in its higher ranks when the figure is less than 10 per division. The force said this is due to a need for "confidentiality of employee self-identification data."
As of April 2020, in a majority of the divisions across Canada, the number was, indeed, less than 10. The RCMP did reveal that in Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I. and Nunavut, it has no commissioned officers who are Indigenous or people of colour. This is especially notable for Nunavut, where an estimated 86 per cent of the population is Indigenous.
"Until they actually hire or recruit more Indigenous people, more people of colour, more women and put those people in positions of power ... I don't see how any of this is going to change," said Wagner.
The RCMP refused a CBC News request to speak with Commissioner Brenda Lucki and said a current supervisor in recruitment may only be available a week from now.
The force did provide a statement, which said it is committed to "providing every part of the country with culturally competent policing that can serve all Canadian communities in a professional manner with dignity and respect."
Back in the fall, the RCMP published a less granular summary of nationwide figures, which revealed that people of colour represented less of its regular-member workforce than in the broader Canadian labour market, and that its Indigenous workforce had shrunk since 2014. The numbers for the higher ranks were murkier.
In the more specific breakdowns CBC received through the access to information request, B.C. is the only RCMP division that had more than 10 Indigenous people in commissioned ranks, and thus published the numbers. It was 13, or 7.4 per cent of the higher ranks.
Nationally, that figure is 7.9 per cent, slightly higher than the percentage of Indigenous people in Canada, which is about five per cent.
'I would not tolerate racism'
Stephen Gloade, 48, who retired from the force in 2019, remains a rare example of an Indigenous person who made it through to a promotion at the RCMP. But the circumstances of that promotion still rankle him.
A Mi'kmaw from Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia, Gloade started off as a regular member in Halifax. When he was aiming for a promotion, he tried there.
In 1994, he was asked to take part in the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo in the ceremonial event's RCMP contingent. He and other members stayed in a dormitory room at Dalhousie University in Halifax, but Gloade was singled out in an accusation by cleaning staff that his room was too dirty — an allegation Gloade thought was based on racism.
Gloade's supervising inspector, as well as the university dean, were not satisfied with his denials until he let them look at his room. His inspector then discouraged him from asking for an official letter of apology from Dalhousie.
"I'd never let that stuff happen to another person. I would not tolerate racism," Gloade said. "Sometimes, to make a difference, you've got to be on a bigger soapbox."
That's why he attempted to join higher ranks in Nova Scotia. But ultimately, the only option available was Regina, which struck him as less than ideal.
"I'm not Ojibwe, I'm not Cree, I'm not Saulteaux," Gloade said, naming some of the First Nations in Saskatchewan.
"Let's send the Catholic priest over to the Protestant church and do the service," he said, imagining what the Mounties' approach would look like if applied to organized religion. "Well, that's not going to fly."
There were no Indigenous officers in the queue for a promotion at the time in Saskatchewan. Thinking that some Indigenous representation in the higher ranks was better than none, Gloade moved to Regina, where he became an inspector.
Even so, he said his promotion reflects some of the issues with how the force categorizes the more than 630 First Nations communities in Canada as broadly "Indigenous."
Gloade was surprised to learn from CBC News that 102 regular members in the Nova Scotia division where he began his career now identify as Indigenous.
It made him wonder how many, specifically, are Mi'kmaq, and if a better deployment would have helped during the contentious lobster dispute between Mi'kmaq and non-Indigenous fishermen in Nova Scotia last fall.
"The failure to act accordingly in the lobster dispute ... rests clearly on the shoulders of senior management," he said. "You will see the front-line police officers in the news clips standing by and watching things happen, but I can guarantee you they are taking direction from senior officers."
The RCMP said it has developed an "equity, diversity and inclusion strategy" focused on "identifying and reducing workplace and service delivery barriers, racism and discrimination for diverse groups of people."
It did not share that strategy with the CBC. On its website, the force refers to consulting with employment equity groups in drafting the strategy, and says it is to be implemented in 2021-2022. In November, it also spoke about updating its recruiting process to root out racism.
The statistics provided by the Mounties show women have made the most strides in commissioned ranks among equity-seeking groups, but even there, they still only represent 24.7 per cent of commissioned officers.
"It's seen as a masculine job," said Lynda Reil, who retired from the RCMP as a corporal a decade ago, and completed a master's thesis on gender in policing at the University of British Columbia. During her research, she interviewed women from various Canadian police forces and found common themes: harassment and a lack of opportunity for advancement.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto, said that to get a fuller picture of where the RCMP is coming up short, it should speak to members of equity-seeking groups who succeeded in making it to the upper ranks, as well as those who failed and those who didn't even try.
He warned that having more leaders from equity-seeking groups would not present a "magical solution" to historically tenuous ties with Canada's Indigenous or Black communities, but it would help.
"To an extent, members of these groups may be more in tune with the concerns of these communities, may be able to foster better relationships with these communities and set a tone within the service," Owusu-Bempah said.
Important not to stagnate: Ottawa
The CBC asked the federal ministries of Indigenous relations and public safety for interviews with ministers Carolyn Bennett and Bill Blair, respectively.
Indigenous relations referred CBC to Public Safety, and Public Safety spokesperson Mary-Liz Power said Blair was unavailable.
"RCMP must be ever-evolving to meet the needs and expectations our communities have for them," Power said in a statement. "Minister Blair is focused on modernizing policing structures to ensure they better reflect our communities."
In a mandate letter in January 2021, the Prime Minister's Office tasked Blair with addressing "systemic inequities in law enforcement" and to "address toxic workplace cultures, systemic discrimination and harassment" within the RCMP.
But that is too late for some.
Last June, Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam called for the RCMP to be removed entirely from policing in Indigenous communities. This was after assault charges against him were dropped once CBC News obtained a dashcam video that showed an RCMP officer tackling him to the ground, punching him in the head and putting him in a chokehold in Fort McMurray, Alta., in March 2020.
"If I had my way, in five years the RCMP should be gone from all native reserves across the country," Adam said last June, "and we should have our own police force."
Earlier that same month, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki admitted to the existence of systemic racism within the force, but only after she faced criticism for initially struggling to define it.
An RCMP career is 'hard to sell'
Reil acknowledged it will take time and effort for larger police forces to adapt to evolving demographics, but she believes there's hope. "I do think things are beginning to change," she said.
Gloade and Wagner do not share that optimism. Neither could recommend joining the RCMP to youth among family and friends.
While Gloade is proud of the work he has done with the RCMP, "it's hard to sell something when you don't believe in it at times."
Wagner, meanwhile, has gotten rid of most of the mementos linked to her 15-year career with the Mounties. She even gathered some in a pile in her backyard and set them on fire.
"It felt actually empowering," she said. "Burning all of that was just a release."
Both she and Gloade have joined a recently proposed class-action lawsuit against systemic racism in the force.
"I hope that it prompts some real change in how the RCMP deals with their members," said Wagner. "When the members are not healthy and they're not doing their jobs, then it's the communities who suffer."