Boushie family lawyer among voices condemning top-ranking Mountie's denial of systemic racism in policing

Alberta RCMP Assistant Commissioner and former Saskatchewan RCMP Commander Curtis Zablocki said this week he does not think racism is systemic in Canadian policing.

'Zablocki speaks about learning and listening yet he doesn’t seem to be doing either,' says lawyer 

Curtis Zablocki is the deputy commissioner for Alberta RCMP. Zablocki previously headed up RCMP in Saskatchewan. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

The lawyer for Colten Boushie's family is among the voices condemning high-ranking Prairie police officer Curtis Zablocki's statement that there is no systemic racism in Canadian policing. 

"If he was listening to the voices of Indigenous people, listening to the voices of the leaders, of the advocates, he would have learned about systemic racism in the justice system," said lawyer Eleanore Sunchild.  

Zablocki, the deputy commissioner for Alberta RCMP, made the controversial comment at a news conference in Edmonton on Monday. 

"I don't believe that racism is systemic through Canadian policing, I don't believe it's systemic through policing in Alberta," he said.

Prior to moving into his current role in Alberta, Zablocki was the commander for the Saskatchewan RCMP from 2016 to 2018, including before and during the the Gerald Stanley trial.

Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man from the Red Pheasant First Nation, died after he was shot by Gerald Stanley at a farm near Rosetown. 

Stanley was charged with second-degree murder by the RCMP before being acquitted during a trial in February 2018. 

The Boushie family has raised concerns about the way the case was handled by police. 

The RCMP's deputy commissioner in Alberta denies there is systemic racism in policing in the province and in the rest of Canada. Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki's comments came just a day after Alberta's Serious Incident Response Team announced it would investigate claims of racism and police brutality brought forward by Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam. 0:47

Sunchild said Zablocki's comments send the message that the "status quo" will remain. 

"Zablocki speaks about learning and listening yet he doesn't seem to be doing either," Sunchild said. 

At Stanley's jury trial in 2018, the court heard that RCMP officers who were tasked with securing the scene at his farm did not put a tarp over the vehicle in which Boushie was shot before rain washed away some evidence — an oversight that troubled the Boushie family.

Cree lawyer Eleanore Sunchild, who also represents survivors of residential schools and of the Sixties Scoop, outside her office in North Battleford, Sask. (Connie Walker/CBC News)

Debbie Baptiste, Boushie's mother, previously told CBC News that on the night he was shot, RCMP officers entered her home with weapons drawn before informing her of her son's death.

Baptiste said that after she collapsed on the floor, one RCMP officer told her to "get it together" and then asked, "Have you been drinking?"

"Alvin Baptiste sat there and told [Zablocki] how the Boushie family was treated by the RCMP right from the moment Colten was killed and Curtis Zablocki said he listened but it's obvious he didn't learn from what he was told," said Sunchild, speaking of a conversation that happened after the trial verdict.

Sunchild, a member of the Thunderchild First Nation, said she was not surprised by Zablocki's comments because of the history of colonization and police participation in residential schools.

She urged members of the RCMP to acknowledge systemic racism in policing and review literature and reports such as the Truth And Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, the final report into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the Stonechild inquiry into how police forces deal with Indigenous people.

Sunchild said national discussions about systemic racism are very personal for the Boushie family.

"It's very difficult for them," said Sunchild.

"They've had to become educators of the rest of Canada about systemic racism."

Colten Boushie, from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, Sask., was killed in August 2016. (Facebook)

The family is waiting to find out if the RCMP will adopt any recommendations made by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. 

In February, the commission completed its investigation into whether the RCMP's handling of Boushie's case was reasonable and whether members discriminated on the basis of race.

Whether or not the RCMP will adopt any recommendations from the CRCC is up to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki. 

On Wednesday Lucki was asked if she believes there is systemic racism in Canadian policing. 

"That is an interesting question because in the last couple of days I have honestly heard about 15 or 20 definitions of systemic racism and if it refers to an unconscious bias that exists ... we definitely have that in the RCMP and we are not immune to it at all," said Lucki. 

"There are times when our members don't act in accordance with our core values, which includes racism, and it's those times that we have to make sure that that doesn't happen."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that the RCMP and other police agencies across the country have a problem with systemic racism.

"In many cases it's not deliberate, it's not intentional, it's not aggressive, individual acts of racism, although those obviously exist. It is recognizing that the systems we have built over the past generations have not always treated people of racialized backgrounds, of Indigenous backgrounds, fairly through the very construction of the systems that exist."

Alain Babineau is a former RCMP officer of 28 years who experienced racism as a Black man working for the police service

He is now a lawyer and works for the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations in Montreal as an advisor on issues of racial profiling and discrimination.

He said systemic racism is not well understood by politicians and administrators, adding that it consists of implicit biases and practices that have permeated institutions and become ingrained in organizations over time.

"It doesn't mean that you systematically do bad things to racialized people," said Babineau.

"It means that your systems, your thinking, your policies, your way of doing things, your practices, in cases of promotion systems and so on and so forth, have over time developed into ways that don't take account for the fact that racialized people are part of your organizations.

"In cases of operation practices, it becomes part of how you do business in terms of — and I use racial profiling as an example — in terms of how you view segments of your clients as being more prone to criminality."

He said the result is those people are either over-policed due to these views, or under-policed because their complaints are not taken seriously.

Alain Babineau, a spokesperson for the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) and a former RCMP officer, said he's experienced racial profiling as a Black police officer, even after showing his badge to prove his identity. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Babineau said he was sad to see Zablocki's comments. 

"He represents some of the folks that I had to deal with my entire career and he made it all the way up to the rank of deputy commissioner," said Babineau. 

"That's a sad state of affairs when you have somebody like this that has reached that rank and is still oblivious to the … reality of systemic discrimination in policing."

Babineau said he still communicates with Black officers at the RCMP who tell him they are "going through hell" and afraid to come forward. 

He said the climate created by protests following the death of George Floyd is creating space for people of colour to speak up. 

Babineau said is not trying to attack Zablocki personally because he does not know him, but that his comments suggest he is a "relic from the past." 

"Obviously the status quo for him worked," said Babineau. 

"So you know that people like him will not have any kind of impetus or interest in changing, you know, in turning the page and changing the culture internally."

Babineau said he has been removed from Facebook groups for Canadian police officers because he has spoken up when officers defended violent actions. 

He hopes Zablocki's superiors will sit him down to discuss his views and the message they send to the public.  

"Zablocki is out of pocket, he's part of the problem and hopefully he can be turned around through rigourous counselling," Babineau said. 

'There are still people protecting that system'

Ida Belete of Saskatoon said that as a Black woman she feels the effects of systemic racism every day. In terms of policing, she said she was recently followed home by a police vehicle while driving. 

She said she made several turns to confirm that the vehicle was following her. and that the vehicle stopped at a nearby intersection when she got home before eventually driving away.

Ida Belete says she finds the denial of systemic racism by a person in a position of power, like Zablocki, to be very offensive. (Submitted by Ida Belete)

Belete said Zablocki's comments reiterated the denial and ignorance she already knows to exist. 

She said evidence of systemic racism is regularly publicized in statistics, reports and personal stories shared through the media.  

"To have somebody in a position of power denouncing all of the experience that people have talked about, it just adds to the narrative that we are still living in a system and there are still people protecting that system," Belete said. 

"It's very, very offensive to me and I imagine to a lot of people of colour."

She said acknowledging systemic racism in Canadian policing is not about comparisons to the United States but acknowledging what is happening in this country. 

Belete added that the outrage being expressed in response to anti-Black racism in policing is also the result of an oppressive system that is built against people of colour. 

"Everything we do is built in this system and if the system itself doesn't think we have a problem then that's the problem," said Belete.