Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

Anishinaabe scholar unsurprised by recent violent encounters between police and Indigenous people

Newly released dash cam footage of RCMP tackling and punching Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam is an "upsetting" example of police brutality and the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada, according to scholar Erick Laming.

'I'm not surprised at all. These are not isolated incidents,' says Erick Laming

Erick Laming is a Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on police use of force, police oversight and Indigenous and Black community members' experiences with the police. (Erick Laming)

Newly released dashcam footage of RCMP tackling and punching Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam is an "upsetting" example of police brutality and the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada, according to scholar Erick Laming.

That video has been picked up by international media as yet another example of police brutality and the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada.

Laming, an Anishinaabe Ph.D. candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto, spoke with Checkup host Duncan McCue about what that incident says about the police's relationship with Indigenous and other minorities in Canada, and how calls to defund the police across North America are playing out.

Here is part of their conversation.

I want to talk about that footage that Alberta RCMP released, dashcam footage of the violent arrest of Chief Allan Adam. What did you see when you watched that?

Well it's upsetting obviously. But I mean this is what I do for my research. This is what I do for a living right now. So I've seen many of these videos. It does not get easier to watch it every time you watch it.

When I teach classes, I tell the students that excessive force is a very difficult thing to define. I mean, there's no consistent definition across the world [about] what excessive force means. But in this case, the punching of Chief Adam when he was down, I mean that's excessive force. You know it when you see it. So that's what I saw.

Leading up to the incident, I mean, there are ways to diffuse it. Again, I'm not a police officer but it just seems like it escalated a little bit too quickly, in my mind.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam alleges Wood Buffalo RCMP officers assaulted him in a Fort McMurray parking lot earlier this year. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Just in the past couple of weeks, there were two recent police shootings in New Brunswick: Rodney Levi in Boom Road on Friday, Chantel Moore in Edmundston just over a week ago. Fatal shootings, both under investigation.

Are you surprised about this many police incidents, even just since these protests that have begun, that have resulted in the deaths of Indigenous people?

No. I'm not surprised at all. I mean these are not isolated incidents. Chief Adams is not isolated.

The thing with Chief Adams's incident is that we wouldn't ever even know that that happened because it was closed, right? It was only [because of] what's going on right now, this worldwide movement [protesting] police brutality or violence against minority communities, that we know that it happened.

I've seen many of these videos. It does not get easier to watch it every time you watch it.- Erick Laming

There's a lot of these cases that come out and we just don't have data on how often police use force against this population.

Let's talk about the defunding conversation that's happening right across North America right now. How do you define the call to defund police?

I guess there are two different camps you can look at. A lot of people who are calling for defunding, I don't think they mean to just take so much money away from the police. I think they're looking to reallocate funds to certain programs or certain initiatives that could help the community.

But then you have another camp [to whom] defunding means abolishing the police. So if you separate those two, I'm definitely not in the camp of abolishing. We need law enforcement in a lot of the communities. I mean, it can help. But in terms of, you know, taking some money and reallocating, I think that's a conversation that can be had.

You mentioned Justin Trudeau this week suggesting that perhaps body cams would be a good investment in terms of trying to clean up some of this violence. What does the research tell us about that, as a solution?

In Canada, there's really not much evidence to suggest that they're effective. Calgary is the only large police service that has fully deployed them. And even then, they don't really release too much information.

Worldwide in the U.S., there has been a lot of research that suggests that they can be effective in different areas. They can also be, you know, not as effective in the same areas. So you have mixed findings in terms of that.

Demonstrators march against racism and police brutality and to defund the Minneapolis Police Department on June 6, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minn. (Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images)

But the one thing that we know is that it's going to increase the police budget, because body cameras are not cheap. It's a long-term investment.

So if you are having a conversation about defunding police, you have to look at, you know, are body cameras the right solution to be adding more money into policing?

Because we don't have evidence to suggest that they're effective, even in changing officer behaviour and improving the trust in our relationships with those communities that fear police right now.

It seems pretty clear that the big part of this conversation is the broken trust between racialized communities, Indigenous communities, and the police in this country. So, if you could wave your magic wand based on your research, what needs to change in policing?

Obviously, I don't have a magic answer, but through my research and talking with community members, and a lot of Indigenous community members, they just have this distrust that just stems from history.

And when they see a police officer, they're already fearful because they feel like they're being targeted. So when you have an armed police officer arriving at a scene, right away your distress level — your fear — is amplified. You don't know what's going to happen in that case.

A protester holds a sign calling for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women at a protest in Vancouver on Friday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In some communities, [there are] a lot of Indigenous police officers that work within their communities. They're seen as peacekeepers, because they know the issues, they know how to probably de-escalate those situations, and they also look at alternatives.

With the RCMP, if you don't have that history, if you're not Indigenous, if you don't have that background, you might not be able to really instill that in what you're doing.

So, maybe we have to change our approach to policing in certain communities. And maybe that way we can at least try and gain some trust back.

But again, it's involving the people. Because if you don't involve community leaders — elders, chiefs — you don't really know what the issues are.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Kirthana Sasitharan. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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