I wrote a few weeks ago on the death of Abdirahman Abdi and how the reaction to his death from the police and the mayor was disturbing, disappointing, and wrong. I note, in passing, that in the time that has gone by we are still no closer to receiving any satisfactory answers about what happened that day, or holding anyone to account. Equally disturbingly, another death in Ottawa in recent days has shown that this was far from an isolated incident or a unique problem.
A few weeks ago now, the body of an Inuit woman named Annie Pootoogook was found in the Rideau River. She was an accomplished artist, had lived a difficult life, and at first it seemed her death was a sad accident. Then, the police announced that they were investigating her death as ‘suspicious’. Then things got worse.
A police officer used his private Facebook account to make a series of hateful and undeniably racist comments, dismissing Annie Pootoogook’s death as not worth investigating because First Nations people have short life spans and are happy to be substance abusers. I wish I could say it was astonishing to see such comments from a law enforcement officer, but it really isn’t. The surprising part was to see them made quite so publicly and blatantly, instead of being cloaked in double speak and careful wording. Understandably, as the comments became widely known, people were outraged.
Then things got worse. Police Chief Charles Bordeleau went on the radio to respond to the comments, and the upset they had caused, and refused to even apologize. He refused to call them racist; the furthest he would go was ‘inappropriate’ and to say that they were being ‘perceived as racist’. He suggested that this officer’s publicly expressed racism was no different than the biases every person inevitably has, and touted the training his department receives in this regard. Bordeleau said he saw no need to suspend the officer and that the comments did not ‘meet the threshold’ for dismissing the officer. He said, despite these public comments, that he saw no evidence of racist officers under his command. One wonders what further evidence he could possibly require.
It was a masterwork of the non-apology apology and is simply not good enough. People often seem to wonder why some do not have confidence and trust in the police. When an officer who makes public racist comments is not even suspended, and the police do not even make an unqualified apology, it shouldn’t be hard to understand. It is also, sadly, not hard to understand why there is such a horrifying pile of cases of missing and murdered First Nations women sitting unsolved when attitudes such as this exist in law enforcement. Here is a woman who died under suspicious circumstances, and police dismiss it as not worth their time.
It absolutely has to be worth their time, if they’re to be worthy of the respect and trust they ask of us. I have seen community activists who work with Bordeleau say that ‘his heart is in the right place’ and I trust that that is true. It is not enough. Bordeleau, the Ottawa police, and I would argue civic authorities in Ottawa in general, need to take an honest look at how and why they do things (which is not easy), lay aside the probably-understandable impulse to protect their own houses, and make real changes. If relations between government, law enforcement, and the community are going to change, now is not the time to carefully protect this officer instead of really confronting what his views represent. It’s time to prioritize people over the institution.
The plight of First Nations communities is Canada’s national shame. It is a stain on our history and on our society that we can never truly make up for, and I’m not sure we’ve really even started in any meaningful way. Incidents such as this show how very far we still have to go, despite the bold comments and promises our relatively new Liberal government has made. We need things to be done, and some of it must involve hard decisions and decisive action. For this and for other reasons we cannot continue to condone and tolerate racism and bigotry among the people who are supposed to be our protectors and the enforcers of our laws. Glowing rhetoric is not enough. Mealy-mouthed half-apologies won’t cut it. Things have to actually be done differently, real changes have to happen. In this specific instance of law enforcement, people will have to be fired and systematic reform and reconciliation will have to happen to fix it.
We all deserve better than the attitudes once again on display from police in Ottawa. Annie Pootoogook certainly deserves better.
That’s it for this week. I hope I’ll be back to writing about writing next time, but this is the kind of thing I promised myself I wouldn’t be quiet about any longer.