Thunder Bay

Police training on Indigenous issues takes days, not hours, retired OPP officer says

Police officers are generally resistant to training on Indigenous issues at first, says cultural awareness trainer and retired OPP Sgt. George Couchie.

'There's usually a wall on the first day,' says cultural awareness trainer George Couchie

It's important to know the history you didn't learn in school and the history you carry as a person, says cultural awareness trainer and retired OPP Sgt. George Couchie. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Police officers are generally resistant to training on Indigenous issues at first, says cultural awareness trainer and retired OPP Sgt. George Couchie.

"There's usually a wall on the first day when they feel they're going to be attacked," Couchie said. "It almost takes a whole day to convince them to admit, 'yeah, I should be here."

His comments come after the facilitator of a race relations session with Thunder Bay police alleges she was verbally assaulted during the training. Police say she misinterpreted the reaction of the officers.

The incident occurred in July as part of the City of Thunder Bay's initiative to have all of its staff view the Walk a Mile film series and take part in facilitated discussions about local Indigenous issues. The sessions usually take three or four hours.

But it takes days, not hours, to do a good job of cultural awareness training, especially with police, Couchie said.

'Sometimes more damage is done'

For many years, he was the coordinator of Aboriginal awareness training for the provincial police in Ontario. Now, the Nipissing First Nation member runs his own consulting business providing cultural awareness programs.

"I get calls to go into offices to talk maybe an hour on Native history, culture and traditions and I usually say no because if you don't give enough information, sometimes more damage is done," he said. 

Couchie's training can last anywhere from two days to a week. He starts with lessons on First Nations culture, traditions and ceremonies "so everyone has a basic understanding of how to be respectful when you come into communities."

The discussion of residential schools takes four hours, including the history and on-going impacts, Couchie said. Social issues such as missing and murdered Indigenous women and the high cost of living on reserve are covered, as well as best practices for improving First Nations communities.

At the end of the training police officers often express gratitude and sometimes become emotional about the things they didn't know, he said.

'Everybody has a story'

"Everybody has a story, everyone carries something into the circle of life," Couchie said. "So it helps officers not only to reflect on the history they haven't learned but also some of the history they may carry and some of the racist things they may have heard."

Provincial police were proactive about increasing Aboriginal awareness training after the police shooting of Anishinaabe protester Dudley George at Ipperwash in 1995, even before the inquiry into George's death was complete, Couchie said. 

Police services across Canada, including Thunder Bay, would be wise to do that work now as the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women gets underway, he said.

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