'Systemic racism needs systemic change,' says AFN national chief on policing in Canada


OTTAWA -- The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says it’s time politicians and policing authorities move beyond the question of whether systemic racism exists in their institutions and start outlining concrete steps for police reform.

In an interview on CTV’s Question Period airing Sunday, Chief Perry Bellegarde says the debate needs to progress from its existence in the forces to how change is implemented. He says any long-lasting transformation must come from the top and funnel down to individual ranks.

"Systemic racism needs systemic change," he said. "Excessive use of force is clear, it’s there. We’ve got to work together to fix it. That’s what we’ve got to put our energies and focus our attention on going forward."

This comes after a week of conflicting statements from high-level RCMP officers and politicians about systemic racism in the national policing service and elsewhere.

Early in the week, Alberta RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said he didn’t believe systemic racism existed in Canadian policing. That was followed by comments from national commissioner Brenda Lucki who said she "struggles" with the term after hearing a number of different definitions.

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau responded, saying he is certain of its presence in "all institutions" in Canada, including the RCMP, but acknowledged many were coming to terms with the concept this week.

On Friday evening, both commissioners walked back their statements and confirmed racism is indeed systemic throughout the ranks.

"I did acknowledge that we, like others, have racism in our organization, but I did not say definitively that systemic racism exists in the RCMP. I should have," said Lucki.

Zablocki said he was enlightened after speaking with community members and doing his own research.

"For me it was really getting a better perspective on what systemic racism is. As I’m sure you’re aware, there are many types of racism terms and categories, as I did some research and googling it, it just became clear," he said.

Bellegarde says concrete action could look like the introduction of police body cameras -- a move the RCMP has agreed to implement -- improved screening to pluck out racist members, or getting more First Nations people in positions of police authority.

"There’s so many things that can be looked at, we’ve got to start that process now," he said.

When asked whether he would consider defunding police as a mechanism to mitigate police brutality against racialized Canadians, Bellegarde says there’s "no one silver bullet."

"Everything under the sun should be looked at -- look at all options, look at all recommendations, look at all systems. Is there enough money put toward de-escalation training? Dealing with mental health issues and concerns, dealing with substance abuse issues, all those can be looked at."

He added demilitarizing the police is critical.

It’s an argument shared by the lawyer of a First Nations Chief embroiled in a legal case with Alberta RCMP after he was violently arrested in March after being confronted over an expired licence plate tag.

"The basic change that has to occur is that the RCMP has to be de-militarized, it has to be a civilian police force that assists in bringing harmony to our society. We don’t need the RCMP to try to control First Nations, Indigenous Peoples, we need a police force that can work with everyone so that we have a harmonious society," said Brian Beresh, Chief Allan Adam’s Counsel in an interview on CTV’s Power Play on Friday evening.

On that case, Bellegarde says it requires first a thorough review and then justice must be served.

"This can never happen again, this excessive use of force," he said. "I don’t believe the RCMP members should get a pass on this one. If they do, there’s your systemic racism in action."