To understand the North, you have to understand trauma, says Dr. Gabor Mate.
And for the RCMP to do their job well, they must understand the people they are paid to protect, the renowned physician added.
The Hungarian-born author of a number of Canadian bestsellers may be best known for his work with hardcore addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Speaking to a crowd of policemen, politicians and members of the public in Whitehorse on Wednesday, Mate began by apologizing for being a doctor.
He has been trained to diagnose when things go wrong, he said.
There is good work being done to improve law enforcement the Yukon, but he’s “more interested” in what isn’t working, he said.
Most problems here can be traced back to two specific issues, said Mate.
First, Mounties are sometimes unaware or choose to ignore the history of trauma, like colonization and assimilation, that surrounds aboriginal populations, and the role the RCMP played in that history.
Second, policing in remote communities is one of this country’s most stressful jobs, and officers tend to be poorly equipped or unwilling to deal with that stress in a healthy way.
“The police have a very difficult job,” he said. “They’re asked, by the rest of us, to confront and deal with the worst dysfunctions the society produces.”
Trauma is the cause of almost all addictions and sociopathy, said Mate.
“Trauma is when people are negatively impacted by things that happened when they’re helpless and vulnerable and when the impacts persist over time. In fact the impacts persist over multiple generations,” he said.
This could range from a neglectful parent, who works too much and is stressed or absent in the home, to a messy divorce, to child abuse, to the tragedy of residential schools.
“But you simply cannot do a humane job of policing amongst a population that was traumatized without first understanding the nature of that trauma and the impacts that trauma has on their present-day thinking, worldview and function,” said Mate.
And the doctor isn’t convinced that the RCMP does enough to understand the cause and nature of addictions or to educate its members on the history of residential schools and the role the Mounties played in enforcing the rules of the government-sanctioned, church-run boarding schools that kidnapped generations of aboriginal Canadian children and placed them in an environment of aggressive assimilation and abuse.
“The police have to know how they might be perceived,” he said. “And what the reasons are for what those perceptions may be. The police force is basically dealing with traumatized people who were traumatized by authority figures. So the police come across as an authoritative institution. There won’t necessarily be trust, there won’t be openness. There will be suspicion, and there will be a lot of dysfunctional reactions.”
Correcting this won’t just come with better training and courses for officers on addictions and residential school. Police must also be more self-aware, said Mate.
This means police need to be conscious of what they say, to whom they say it, and how it may be perceived. They also need to recognize their motivations of why they are doing what they are doing.
“The automatic defensiveness needs to stop,” said Mate. “People have to be really willing to examine themselves and be very transparent about it. I’m not here to recommend techniques, but I am here to recommend an attitude. And I think if the police can adopt that kind of an attitude, then that will go a long way towards resolving all the historical mistrust.
“But as long as they maintain this defensiveness and the kind of ‘gathering around our own’ reflexively, rather than reflectively – as long as that’s maintained, it’s going to be a very difficult road.”
The force must also have a willingness to deal with the stresses of the job in a healthy way, which means dropping the stoic self-image and creating a culture within the force that cultivates talking about emotions and feelings, rather than criticizing it, he said.
“Even RCMP female officers are afraid to talk openly about what they perceive as sexual harassment for fear of losing credibility and losing advancement possibilities.”
But the RCMP has come a long way, said Yukon’s chief superintendant Peter Clark, who attended the symposium on policing in the North this week, and was at Wednesday night’s gathering where Mate spoke.
“As an organization, I think we’ve gotten a lot better at supporting our members and helping them deal with things and realizing that being a human being is a part of the job and we want to bring that out in people,” said Clark.
For example, officers now receive mandatory “debriefings” and time off after encountering traumatic situations.
As for being better aware of the culture and history of First Nation populations, the territory is better off than some other detachments in Canada.
After the 2010 police review, the Yukon’s force of more than 130 members has taken cultural training at Yukon college and, in some communities, have been able to foster mentorships with local First Nation citizens who spend time with officers on the land, helping them become aware of natural hazards in the area and cultural traditions, said Clark.
Lorraine Netro, former NDP MLA and deputy chief for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation also spoke on Wednesday.
She talked about how efforts must be matched on both sides: both the police and aboriginal people must be willing to work together.
As a young girl, the bridge between the police and her community was forged by the special constables program, she said. That program, in which First Nation citizens acted as liaisons, translators and quasi-cops, no longer exists in the territory.
Netro said she remembers growing up with respect for the police because she could see her own relatives wearing the uniform.
This mutual respect and understanding is necessary in a place like Old Crow, and many other remote communities in the North, she said.
“I have grandchildren,” she said. “And I would like them to grow up having that same kind of respect and trust in the RCMP that I was able to have.”
There is a real interest to bring back a better, modern version of the special constables program, said Clark.
Before the event began on Wednesday night, he and government officials “made eye contact” on the idea, he said.
“It certainly is a very real opportunity, but it’s not quite time yet.”
The focus right now is to recruit aboriginal members into the force directly, he said.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at