Canada’s Public Safety Minister Bill Blair panned the RCMP’s “violent behaviour” and suggested consequences should follow after video surfaced showing a Mountie knocking down an Inuk man in Kinngait with the open door of his vehicle.
“The graphic video depicting the violent behavior of RCMP officers that is circulating online is both shocking and disturbing,” Blair’s press secretary Mary-Liz Power wrote APTN News in an email.
“The officer involved has been removed from the community, and an external investigation has been launched into this situation to determine appropriate penalties for these actions and ensure they never happen again.”
The video shows a man staggering in the street of the community of 1,400 and then hit by an RCMP vehicle with its door open. Four more officers swarm and arrest the individual and lift him into the truck while shouting at bystanders to get away.
The Ottawa Police Service (OPS), which conducts third-party investigations of incidents involving police in Nunavut, confirmed it’s deploying two investigators. Since February, OPS has also been called in to investigate three police shootings in the territory, two of them fatal.
Anne Crawford, a lawyer and advocate for families who have been involved in conflicts with RCMP, says these outside investigations don’t always yield results.
“Recently in the Baffin we have had just an excessive number of issues between public and police. We’ve had shootings, we’ve had this, issues of violence. We’ve had more dialogue around the police public relationship. And it just seems to be all piling on top of each other to the point where we need to take some kind of social accounting of it all,” Crawford said.
“Ottawa police regularly investigate here and it’s not a really satisfactory relationship for most communities because the Ottawa police who come to investigate have no context at all for their investigation,” she added.
Nunavut NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq agreed.
“It is not the first incident where – I think it’s the first incident that has been recorded and is getting a lot of public attention because of the current situation not just in Canada but especially in America with the protests in response to George Floyd’s death and Canadians know that this isn’t something that just America faces, that this is something that definitely happens in Canada as well,” Qaqqaq said in an interview with APTN.
“Clearly the man can barely walk even, and I think it was an excessive amount of force that was unnecessary, and it has been raising questions on what is going on that we might not necessarily see.”
“I think that it’s time that we had more accountability and transparency,” she added. “RCMP are here to serve and protect, not to create more harmful situations for community members.”
Prime Minister Trudeau responded to the video but refused to say who he thought should be held accountable.
“I have said from the very beginning that Canada is not immune or exempt from the things that we see going in the United States. Racialized Canadians, Indigenous Canadians have long suffered systemic discrimination in every part of this country, and even though we have taken significant steps over the past years there is much more to do,” he said.
Nunavut RCMP confirmed on Thursday that after the arrest the man in the video was then placed into a holding cell where he was allegedly assaulted after police left to tackle a back-log of calls.
“The guard immediately advised our telecommunications operators who alerted the members on duty. They arrived as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the male in the video was injured as a result of the assault and later flown to Iqaluit for further medical treatment,” RCMP said.
Crawford says police have a duty to protect those in their custody.
“I understand that the custody was very crowded and that might have explained why people were in a less than perfect situation, but absolutely when somebody is in your care who is not competent to care for themselves, then you are absolutely responsible for keeping them safe,” she said.
APTN also reached out to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki for comment.
“Our shared and unique history with Indigenous Peoples provides an environment in which we can work collaboratively to improve community health and wellness,” spokesperson Catherine Fortin said in a statement. “We are committed to continue building upon these relationships as we encourage, sustain and foster honest and open dialogue among Indigenous partners.”
But Qaqqaq says the history between RCMP and Inuit is fraught with problems. Sled dog killings, forced relocations, residential and day schools and tuberculosis sanitoriums were a few she raised.
“I don’t think we even talk about that historic relationship enough to begin with, and I don’t know how much of this awareness new RCMP members are getting. I think we could benefit greatly from not just that but also cultural sensitivity training, real in-depth realization of what you are walking into.”
Crawford points to these negative histories but also raises numerous present issues with policing in the territory.
“The officers coming into our community are on short stints, on rotations. It’s difficult for them to gauge the community context, and they are invariably officers from southern Canada who haven’t worked and lived in an Indigenous context,” she said.
“The language barriers are huge. There are no longer civilian employees in RCMP detachments who speak Inuktitut. Inuktitut is the mother tongue of almost 80 per cent of Nunavummiut, and many people especially in distress can’t get through to the police in their own tongue and explain to them what’s happened.”
Along with accountability and transparency, Qaqqaq has raised the possibility of mandatory police body cameras for RCMP in Nunavut. A pilot project has already started in Nunavik, the Inuit region of northern Quebec.
RCMP in Nunavut say they’re in talks with the Nunavut government about body cameras but cite cost as one issue.
“Though the Commanding Officer supports the use of body worn cameras, there are factors that need to be addressed with cost and storage of the data being major factors,” wrote media liaison Cpl. Jamie Savikataaq.
While body cameras would be a start, Crawford says we may need to reconsider the role policing plays in communities.
“When we look at these events in Nunavut communities we look at the overall issue of the moral authority of police in Canada and around the world and as a society we’re going to have to look carefully at what tasks we’re asking the police to do and what our expectations are, because I think we have put far too much into the police basket and taken far too much off of the accountability of communities, and our own need to take care of our own.”
–With files from Kent Driscoll