Politics

Public safety minister broached systemic racism with RCMP head before course reversal

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair spoke with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki about systemic racism in Canada’s federal police force one day after she struggled to define the term and dodged questions about whether it existed within her organization, CBC News has learned.

RCMP Veterans' Association says it's 'disappointed' by commissioner's systemic racism in policing comments

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair speaks with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki in February 2020. CBC News has learned that Blair spoke to Lucki this week following her comments that systemic racism does not exist within Canada's national police force. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair spoke with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki about systemic racism in Canada's federal police force one day after she struggled to define the term and dodged questions about whether it existed within her organization, CBC News has learned.

According to a government source, Blair spoke to Lucki on Thursday about her comments during a regularly scheduled meeting.

Blair, a former Toronto police chief, acknowledged in a statement Wednesday that "Indigenous people, Black Canadians and other racialized people ... experience systemic racism and disparate outcomes within the criminal justice system."

The source told CBC that the discussion between Blair and Lucki sparked a conversation within the RCMP about language surrounding the topic. 

On Friday, Lucki released an updated statement saying she was aware that "systemic racism is part of every institution, the RCMP included" and admitted she should have "definitively" acknowledged its existence within the RCMP's ranks. 

Reversing course

The commissioner's reversal followed a string of media interviews Wednesday in which she wrestled with the notion of systemic racism and whether it was ingrained in Canadian policing.

Lucki told the CBC's Rosemary Barton that she had heard "about 15 or 20 definitions" of the term, and told the Globe and Mail that if it meant that "racism is entrenched in our policies and procedures, I would say that we don't have systemic racism."

A spokesperson for the RCMP said Lucki made the decision to issue a new statement after realizing during the interviews — and hearing feedback afterwards — that she should have been more explicit in her response. The spokesperson said an internal memo expressing those beliefs was circulated to all RCMP members before a public statement was released. 

Lucki's initial comments came two days after Curtis Zablocki, deputy commissioner of the Alberta RCMP, denied that racism was a deep-seated problem in the national police force.

Zablocki also walked back his comments Friday, apologizing for his remarks and acknowledging that recent conversations had "challenged" his perceptions and "made it clear that systemic racism does exist in the RCMP."

WATCH | RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki addresses systemic racism on The National:

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki talks to CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton about allegations of racism within the service, use of force, body cameras and the growing calls to change police funding. 9:20

Veterans' association 'extremely disappointed'

Demonstrations decrying anti-Black racism and police brutality have erupted across the United States following the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Similar protests also swept Canada, where a number of recent violent and fatal encounters between police and Indigenous people are now under investigation.

The latest incident occurred Friday night, when a member of the Metepenagiag First Nation was shot and killed by New Brunswick RCMP.

The incidents have led many politicians and top officials to say they are confronting racism within Canada's institutions — but yesterday's statements from two of the RCMP's top brass weren't welcome news for some.

"The RCMP Veterans' Association is extremely disappointed in the failure to support the members of our National Police Force," association president Sandy Glenn wrote in a statement Saturday. 

"Making sweeping generalization statements about any group of people is always unfair and in the case of a senior executive member, singularly inappropriate and inaccurate. Thoughtless statements from our political leaders put frontline members of the RCMP at risk."

Glenn wrote that he was not denying the presence of "anomalies" in the RCMP, but said that those individuals "are not the rule." He denied that systemic racism existed in "the RCMP or any other Canadian police agency." 

A chance to move forward

The chief commissioner for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls said systemic racism can no longer be "a term that we're just throwing around without any type of consistent and common meaning." 

"We all know now that you can take racists out of the system," Marion Buller told CBC News, "but that the system itself still remains racist. That's systemic racism." 

Marion Buller, chief commissioner for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, says it's 'wonderful' that top officials are changing their position on whether systemic racism exists within policing in Canada. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Buller said the new statements from both Lucki and Zablocki are a positive step forward.

"I suppose it's never too late to acknowledge that systemic racism exists in a large institution, especially in a large police force," she said. "I just wish it had happened generations ago."

Buller said it's now time to move beyond definitions and look toward repairing fractured relationships.

"We need quarterly reports, we need transparency, we need a plan and we need a new relationship with the RCMP," Buller said. "Make good on your apology, Commissioner Lucki. Show us what you are going to do."

With files from the CBC's Ashley Burke

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