Institutional change must happen

Institutional change must happen Open letter to Justice Minister Marian Horne and Peter Clark, acting/commanding officer, M Division, Royal Canadian Mounted Police: Like all Yukoners, we, the chiefs of the Council of Yukon First Nations, experienced a r

Open letter to Justice Minister Marian Horne and Peter Clark, acting/commanding officer, M Division, Royal Canadian Mounted Police:

Like all Yukoners, we, the chiefs of the Council of Yukon First Nations, experienced a range of emotions as we learned about the circumstances of Raymond Silverfox’s death while in RCMP custody in December, 2008.

We are shocked, horrified and outraged by the circumstance surrounding his death and feel betrayed by the RCMP.

The coroner’s inquest revealed the final hours of the life of Raymond Silverfox were filled with agonizing pain and suffering. His death was slow and horrific. The inquest also revealed the appalling attitudes and shameful conduct of the RCMP members and guards who treated Silverfox with hostility, ridicule and contempt when he so desperately needed their assistance. Unfortunately, it is the experience of many of our citizens and communities that the attitudes and conduct of the RCMP members in this case are neither isolated nor unusual.

While it would be unfair to make generalizations about the character of all members of the RCMP and guards, it was appalling to hear that no members or guards intervened on behalf of Silverfox or challenged the despicable insults made to him during his 13 hours, or so, in their custody.

For far too long, the relationship between RCMP members and our citizens has been characterized by distrust and fear. We have doubt the RCMP will learn anything from this tragic death or make any meaningful changes to its practices and procedures. There have been many incidents in which the rights of our citizens have been violated or in which they have been seriously injured or, in some cases, killed but there never seems to be any substantive changes on the part of the RCMP.

We point out the shooting death of an unarmed youth in Whitehorse in 1998 by an RCMP member and, despite a series of recommendations by a coroner’s jury in that case and public assurances from the RCMP to work with us to improve policing in the Yukon, nothing changed. Perhaps there may be some measures developed and implemented in response to such incidents, such as the implementation of the communications protocol, which we entered into with the RCMP in 1999 to promote communication between the RCMP and Yukon First Nations, but, over time, these superficial measures fade away as members are transferred to other jurisdictions and commanding officers come and go.

Although we believe that the RCMP members and guards who refused assistance to Silverfox must face consequences and sanctions, including criminal charges, our frustration and disappointment in the RCMP does not fall solely on the shoulders of any single person. Instead we condemn the RCMP institution and its continuing unwillingness to work with us to deal with the underlying issue: racist attitudes and cultural stereotyping in relation to First Nation people, part of the institutional structure of the RCMP and widespread throughout its ranks. Without a doubt, these attitudes and stereotypes led to the death of Silverfox. Racist assumptions were made and cultural stereotypes were employed as evidenced by the conduct and comments made by the RCMP members and guards involved.

This must change. And it must change now. This is not about political correctness. It is about treating all people with dignity and respect and carrying out policing duties in an honourable manner. We understand policing can be a difficult, often thankless, job, but it does not justify dehumanizing people and treating them inhumanely.

Where do we go from here? We want substantive action. As chiefs, we will not stand by and allow our citizens to be victimized and abused by the RCMP. We have no faith that the RCMP will deal with this matter or that the code-of-conduct investigation or any complaint filed with the RCMP public complaints commission will improve matters in the future. We certainly do not need another inquiry or study. In particular, we question whether there is a need for the proposed policing review in the Yukon. Words are no longer enough. Apologies are not enough.

We need to address core governance matters within the RCMP in the Yukon to provide for meaningful oversight and accountability. In its vision statement, the RCMP commits to be accountable and efficient through shared decision-making and ensure a healthy work environment that encourages team building, open communication and mutual respect. They commit to demonstrate leadership in the pursuit of excellence. They commit to create and maintain an environment of individual safety, well-being and development guided by its core values of accountability, respect, professionalism, compassion and integrity.

But, Silverfox’s death reveals the RCMP has failed woefully to fulfill its vision statement or achieve its core values in relation to dealing with our citizens and communities. The RCMP institution has failed and, as a result, there must be a role for our governments in the management of the RCMP if they are to police our communities.

Most importantly, there must be meaningful engagement and dialogue between the RCMP and the communities it serves. It is no longer acceptable for the RCMP to make such decisions unilaterally. For example, we must be involved in the identification of policing priorities and staffing matters, including recruitment, training, placement and performance reviews of RCMP members. Perhaps a police board should be established to deal with these matters. We are not prepared to have a protocol or memorandum establishing some advisory committee that meets periodically with the commanding officer. There must be substantive institutional change within the RCMP in the Yukon.

Therefore, we request the RCMP and the Yukon government commit to work with us now to make institutional changes within the RCMP in the Yukon to ensure oversight and accountability and restore our trust in the RCMP and its credibility and integrity. As self-governing Yukon First Nations, we have the ability to exercise our authority within our self-government agreements to establish law-enforcement agencies to police our citizens and communities and displace the role of the RCMP. If the RCMP are not willing to work with us in a meaningful way and we continue to have ongoing issues, why would we allow them to continue to provide police services in the Yukon? We do expect and demand more from the people charged to protect our families and communities.

In closing, on behalf of our citizens, we express our condolences to the Silverfox family and citizens of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation.

No family and no community should lose a loved one under such circumstances.

Ruth Massie

Grand Chief