3 min

Community takes steps to end discriminatory policing

'Are we going to wait until we end up like Pickton?' asks local activist

Bridget Tolley is still seeking justice a decade after her mother was struck and killed by a police car on a reserve near Maniwaki, Quebec.
Tolley says her mother’s death wasn’t handled properly; she is asking for an independent investigation.
“I really didn’t think anything was wrong until I got a copy of the coroner’s report and saw a bunch of mistakes. That’s when I started to go after the police report,” she says.
It took Tolley three years and a thousand dollars in legal fees to get a copy of the police report, in which she found indicators of malpractice.
“There were so many things that weren’t done according to accepted practices. Like, for instance, for my mother there was no coroner. They brought her to the morgue instead of to the hospital to confirm her death. Only police saw her, no family members,” Tolley says.
The Kitigan Zibi First Nation police, Sûreté du Québec police, and Montreal police were all called to the scene of her mother’s death, she says.
“The date, the time and the address were wrong. How could all these things be wrong with three police forces on the case?” Tolley asks.
“This is why I have no trust or no faith in the police.”
The Quebec government denied Tolley’s request for an independent investigation, but she hopes the federal government will overturn the decision.
Tolley started Families of Sisters in Spirit last year to help other aboriginal families who face discrimination and dismissal from the police. She says discrimination played a role in her mother’s case.
“They made it sound like my mother died because she was drunk, not because she was hit by a police car,” she says.
Tolley says discrimination continues to happen all over Canada.
“You can see it especially when an aboriginal girl goes missing. We don’t get the same response as when a non-aboriginal girl goes missing,” she says.
One example is the Robert Pickton case. Police now suspect a serial killer is targeting sex workers in Ottawa, but community groups’ demands to end street sweeps continue to be ignored, Tolley says.
“Are we going to wait until we end up like Pickton?” she asks.
Professor Joanne St Lewis says it’s more than bad policing contributing to the victimization of marginalized communities.
“We [as a society] pay so little attention to those communities that it is very easy for any kind of a predator to be in those communities and cause tremendous damage before anybody is going to see any pattern of criminality,” St Lewis says.
People who experience inequality on several levels are pushed even farther to the margins of society. Factors like poverty, racism and working in a criminalized industry make people “disposable” in society’s eyes, she says. 
St Lewis and five other panellists, including an Ottawa police officer, recently discussed the relationship between marginalized communities and the police at a forum held by Making Ottawa Safe Together (MOST) on Jan 25. The forum drew almost 40 community members.
MOST is a volunteer-run organization that started in 2004.
While marginalized communities are more vulnerable to becoming victims of crime, they are also more vulnerable to higher criminalization rates, St Lewis says.
Panellist Gabrielle Fayant says aboriginal people make up only four percent of Canada’s population but account for 30 percent of those who are incarcerated. This is caused by racism and discrimination, she says.
“I don’t necessarily think that it’s part of the police code of conduct to be racist toward aboriginal people,” she says. “A normal kid might not be educated in aboriginal issues, so they might have these stereotypes . . . that carry into your job.”
Ignorance of aboriginal history keeps negative stereotypes afloat, but it’s not just police, says Fayant.
St Lewis says there are many factors and players in the justice system that influence how a person will be sentenced.
“We see the police first, but it takes a lot to get a person in jail,” she says, noting that police officers receive more training than other workers in the justice sector.
One factor is the lack of accessibility or awareness of the mechanisms that keep people out of the legal system and bring accountability to the police, she says.
She wants to see projects to help educate marginalized youth on their rights and what they should do if stopped by police.
A community-based project to collect data on negative experiences with police would help uncover patterns of inaccessibility or discrimination, St Lewis says.
MOST is taking the first steps by engaging with marginalized and immigrant communities to bring their concerns to the police.
Participants at the forum also discussed plans to create a rights education project directed at youth.