Racist comments made by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) have triggered outrage from both the First Nations and African-Canadian community.
A press conference held at Toronto’s Native Canadian Centre on Jan. 29 was held to give voice to this offence. The comments in question come from a surveillance videotape recently unearthed by CBC. The tape was recorded the day before the shooting of Dudley George at Ipperwash in 1995. On the tape, an officer can be heard joking about “baiting” Native protesters with beer, while another responds that it “works in the South with watermelon.”
“We are appalled by the racist comments by the police personnel,” said Grand Council Chief Earl Commanda of the Anishinabek Nation. “We outright condemn this type of behaviour by police.”
The conference was attended by leaders from both the First Nations and African-Canadian community. Both parties expressed their frustration with the ongoing persistence of racial profiling in the OPP. Several high-profile legal cases have shown that Aboriginals and African-Canadians are often targeted at much higher rates by the police than other groups.
According to Commanda, the tapes only underline the existence of racism in the police. “We are more convinced than ever that the events at Ipperwash are racially connected,” said Commanda.
Relations between police and minority groups are already strained. Speakers such as Zanana Akande from the Urban Alliance on Race Relations fear that these comments will make it even more difficult to trust police officials.
“We expect them to act with discretion with their guns…we would be more comfortable if they were not biased against a certain group,” said Akande. “It’s not a couple of boys making comments in the schoolyard, these are people in whom we have put our trust.”
The two officers who made the comments have been disciplined by the OPP. One officer has been ordered to attend sensitivity training. According to the speakers, this is hardly adequate.
“A few hours of sensitivity training is not enough to eradicate…the damage and pain of such blatant racism,” said Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic. Parsons called for zero tolerance legislation against racial profiling as well as the establishment of an external organization to monitor police activities.
Others such as Dr. Karen Mock believe an investigation into the cause of such racist comments is crucial to prevent future incidents. Mock, the executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, called for an inquiry into not only the attitudes at the time of the shooting, but the processes and decisions that led to those attitudes.
“We need effective training, immediate discipline,” said Mock. “We must have effective measures, in other words, not just band-aid measures.”
Akande also called for better decision making, especially in terms of the hiring process at the OPP. “We need better screening. We need to select policemen who focus on enforcement, not hating certain groups.”
The speakers all expressed their desire to be more involved in bringing about such positive change in the OPP. They cited their attendance at the conference as the first step in that involvement. Said Commanda, “We want to be part of the solution, not merely seen as victims.”
The racist comments were made during the protest by 30 aboriginals, including Dudley George, against the Ontario government’s control of Ipperwash Provincial Park. The land had been taken from the Stoney Point band in 1942 to build a military camp.
During a raid of the protesters’ barricades by the OPP, George was shot. In 1997, the officer responsible for his death was charged with criminal negligence.
An inquiry is to be launched this fall under the Liberal government to investigate both the events at Ipperwash and the comments made on the videotape.