RCMP is losing Indigenous officers — and some former Mounties blame racism in the ranks
More than 100 officers who identify as Indigenous have left force in past 3 years
By her eighth year in the RCMP, Const. Kerri McKee of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan thought she was used to the insults and small acts of aggression that came with being both an Indigenous woman and a police officer.
That was before the now-retired Mountie had to remove an intoxicated passenger from a Greyhound bus parked at a gas station off a highway in Newfoundland and Labrador on her own. The backup she called for, she said, was a long time in coming.
McKee said the man tried to steal her cruiser, kicked her, put her in a chokehold and threatened to kill her.
"I called for backup, and backup was going to be, I don't know, however long," she told CBC News. "It was like, 'Oh yeah, we're busy, we're busy,' so I had to deal with it myself."
She said she only got the man to let go by biting into his forearm. By the time backup did arrive, she had broken ribs, a black eye and a larynx so damaged she was unable to speak for more than a year.
An Indigenous exodus
McKee made it through her career, retiring as a constable in 2019.
But data shows that Canada's national police force is failing to retain Indigenous officers.
Following a request by Hamilton Centre New Democrat MP Matthew Green, the RCMP reported that 102 members who identify as Indigenous have left the force in the last three years.
The document also shows that the RCMP increased its net count of officers who identify as "visible minorities" and officers who do not self-identify as either visible minority or Indigenous.
The loss of so many Indigenous RCMP officers doesn't surprise Erick Laming, a PhD student at the University of Toronto's Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies.
Laming, a member of the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation, has spent a lot of time interviewing Indigenous people in northern Ontario. He said the RCMP's fraught relationship with Indigenous peoples is acting as a drag on recruitment and retention.
"If you don't trust the system, then you don't want to be a part of it," he said. "That's a huge barrier right there."
Alongside the RCMP's historic involvement in Canada's residential schools system, Laming said, recent high-profile episodes of police violence — such as the arrest of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam last year and the shooting death of Chantel Moore of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation — make many Indigenous people extremely reluctant to consider careers in law enforcement.
"Any one incident can take it back 20 to 30 years in terms of building that trust in the community," he said.
Jonathan is another retired Indigenous RCMP officer; CBC News has agreed to use a pseudonym because he said he fears repercussions at his current job. He said the racist cracks started the day he applied for the job, as he was being fingerprinted for a standard background check.
"One member came into the cell block and said, 'What did he do?'" he said. When the officer was told he was applying to join the force, Jonathan said, the Mountie "rolled his eyes and walked out of the room."
He said he's heard plenty of racist remarks over his career with the police, including "members taking humour in the term 'Prairie N-word'" or saying "Newfoundland had it right when they wiped out their [Indigenous] population" while he was within earshot.
Jonathan and McKee said they know of RCMP members who have left the force in recent years to join Indigenous police services — a more inclusive and, often, more lucrative line of work.
"I was kind of stuck in it," McKee said, adding she had "thought about going to a different police force" but felt she had to stick with the RCMP because she was a single mother caring for two children.
A '60s Scoop child herself, McKee said she spent years on the force with colleagues who never wanted to hear her talk about residential schools, who called her uneducated or slapped her down with racist slurs.
"It's hard for us," she said of Indigenous RCMP officers of her generation. "But we kind of snowplowed ... we're trying to make it easier for the ones coming up behind us."
The data presented by the RCMP paints a picture of a police force struggling to connect with Indigenous and minority communities.
The 2020-21 fiscal year saw only 337 Indigenous applicants attempt to join the RCMP, and only 17 of them were selected to attend the force's Depot Division for training — a 50 per cent drop from 2019-20.
Meanwhile, only 4.3 per cent of visible minority applicants met the bar for Depot training, while nearly a fifth of 1,540 applicants who did not self-identify as either visible minority or Indigenous were cleared to start training.
"What we're seeing is a complete disconnect between people actually trying to access federal public-sector jobs like the RCMP and their ability to actually get accepted into the police training college," said Green, the NDP MP who asked for the numbers.
"What I want are for equity policies to be applied across all federal jobs."
'There may in fact be some systemic issues'
For months, the RCMP has spoken about how it has created a new equity, diversity and inclusion strategy, although it has not disclosed it publicly beyond a few paragraphs on its website.
The Mounties are also drafting a new entrance exam for potential recruits.
Nadine Huggins, the RCMP's executive director for human resource policies, strategies and programs, said the majority of officers who leave the Mounties do so after a satisfying career, but she had no specific breakdowns or explanations about why departures for Indigenous members are higher than they are for other groups.
"If in fact they are leaving the RCMP for Indigenous police forces," she said, "it's not a terrible thing for them to be leaving with the expertise they are developing through the training and the experience that they're getting in the RCMP."
Huggins acknowledged that "there may in fact be some systemic issues" preventing access to Indigenous and minority groups. "We have to turn over a lot of stones" in examining them, she said.
However, she also said the force only has a "voluntary" exit interview process for departing members. "We don't necessarily have any sort of systematic approach to looking at them."
Although it wants to increase the overall number of Indigenous applicants and their presence in the force, there is also no specific target or quota. "Our goal is as many as we can attract, as many as we can promote, as many as we can retain throughout so that they retire with a full career and a full pension," Huggins said.