Trust is hard won and easily lost, as the Yukon’s RCMP has learned over the past year.
First came the case of two Mounties in Watson Lake being charged with sexual assault. They were found not guilty, but many Yukoners began to suspect the worst of the police.
Then during a coroner’s inquest it was revealed Raymond Silverfox, a 43-year-old Carmacks man who died in RCMP custody in December 2008, was mocked and ridiculed by members as he died from acute pneumonia after being locked up for 13 hours.
Last, Robert Stone, 34 years old and extremely intoxicated, died at the Yukon’s Detox Centre after being picked up by police. Stone’s family accused the RCMP of assaulting Stone.
An autopsy was inconclusive as to the cause of death, yet ruled out violence as a cause. But, on the heels of the Silverfox case, many began to see a pattern forming.
All these cases pitted vulnerable First Nations people against those who were supposed to protect them. No wonder, then, that a task force charged in April with looking at how to repair the force’s tattered reputation found that relations between the territory’s RCMP officers and its First Nations residents is one of “mutual hostility and mistrust.”
The report, released yesterday, offers many recommendations as to how to fix this. But it acknowledges it won’t be easy.
Building a better drunk tank is part of the plan (see story, page three). But rebuilding public trust in the RCMP will be far more difficult.
The report proposes to offer RCMP members special training so they’re better equipped to deal with the morass of social problems found in the Yukon.
Members would be taught about the history and culture of Yukon First Nations. They’d receive special training on how to deal with the acutely intoxicated and those with mental illness and FASD. They’d also get a crash course in wilderness training.
Tighter ties would be formed between the RCMP and First Nation communities. The report proposes the creation of a Yukon Police Council, which would comprise of members appointed by the Department of Justice and by First Nations, to set goals and help serve as a liaison between the force and the public.
It would obviously help matters if the RCMP hired more Yukon First Nations recruits. Of the 130 RCMP members in the Yukon, 17 are aboriginal. Just five of those were born in the territory.
But improving those numbers is “easier said than done,” the report states.
Since 2004, nine Yukon First Nations men applied to join the RCMP. Four eventually withdrew their applications; four failed the entrance examination or didn’t meet the basic qualifications; one went on to become a member of the force.
Nine Yukon First Nations women applied during the same period. Six withdrew their applications and the remaining three failed the entrance examination.
In the past, the territory has hired First Nations as “special constables.” The practice was given up in the hope that more First Nations residents would become full-fledged members, to no avail.
The report proposes the Northern Institute of Social Justice, an offshoot of Yukon College, offer a primer course for First Nations residents interested in joining the force, as part of a broader strategy to recruit more aboriginal members.
It needs to be easier for residents to file a complaint against the police, the report states. As it stands, many residents either don’t know how to make a complaint, or they believe that doing so won’t result in any meaningful change.
As a fix, the territory should create an independent, civilian police complaint co-ordinator, the report recommends.
Many take a dim view of the RCMP investigating themselves. The RCMP would prefer to not be in this conflict, either, the report states. But it would be hard to justify the creation of a civilian investigation body for the Yukon, given the small size of the territory.
So the report recommends that the force, when possible, ask provincial or municipal police forces to conduct investigations of Yukon RCMP. When this isn’t possible, an independent observer should be assigned to monitor the investigation, the report states.
Among the gravest concerns of the task force members were reports of how abused First Nations women are frequently unwilling to report the violence they faced to the RCMP.
First Nations women reported to the task force that “some RCMP investigators feel women are responsible for their own victimization in cases of intimate partner violence and sexualized assault. They feel that their safety is not a priority to some investigators.
“Women also feel that the RCMP does not fully understand the dynamics of our smaller communities and the devastating effects on the victim, who must continue to have relationships with members of the community.
“They also noted that abusers may be prominent members of their community and their status should not protect them from investigation or lend them greater credibility than a victim.”
RCMP members, in turn, expressed frustration at how First Nations women were frequently unwilling to co-operate with investigations.
In response, the report recommends an overhaul of how domestic violence cases are handled in the territory. A working group would consider how to better train members and how to provide more support to domestic assault victims in the legal system.
The task force heard many calls for RCMP members to become more involved in the communities in which they serve. Yet rural detachments are likely understaffed and frequently face unrealistic expectations.
As one RCMP member told the task force, “the community expectation is Cadillac police service on a Volkswagen budget.”
RCMP frequently end up dealing with Yukon’s social woes as part of their jobs. But these problems are far too big for the force alone to solve. As the report states, many members feel that “communities must assume greater ownership of their problems and engage as full members with the police.”
Government officials will meet with First Nation leaders next month to discuss which recommendations to act on first.
To find the report, visit the Department of Justice’s website, at www.justice.gov.yk.ca.
Contact John Thompson at