Toronto has a lot going for it. Canada’s largest city rightly considers itself the cultural, entertainment and financial capital of Canada. Officially, the city is proud of its cultural diversity, but increasingly, that pride is being questioned by Aboriginal Peoples across Canada.
One of the early warning signs was the way Gabriel Roberts, an Ojibway, was treated during the G20 summit in 2010 when he was arrested trying to pick up a cigarette butt. Roberts, a paraplegic, was arrested because police thought he was trying to pop a tire.
Gabriel remembers the 30 hours he spent in jail. After Toronto police confiscated his wheelchair “I had to lay there on the floor, shit and piss on myself.” He was also denied his medication. Eventually he was released without charge. After winning human rights complaint he received financial compensation from the force.
It isn’t an isolated incident. Unfortunately, according to one-time street worker Doug Hatlem, this type of abuse appears to be escalating. He’s watched police ticket Aboriginals for drinking in public while ignoring nearby “white people sitting down on a bench drinking.” Hatlam said he’s noted dozens of assaults on homeless people by police over the last seven years and most of them were Aboriginal.
Homeless men interviewed by APTN say Toronto police are racist bullies and worse. “They really like to pick on Native people here in the city,” Greg Spoon told APTN. “If they can get away with it, give you a shot in the head, they will give you a shot in the head.”
While some complain of being spit on, kicked and punched, those complaints never seem to get a hearing.
Social workers and lawyers for the Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto (ALST) have heard a lot of these stories. As ALST’s Emily Hill told APTN, “As a lawyer I don’t expect every case that walks in the door with someone alleging misconduct is necessarily going to support that finding after an investigation, but what I find troubling is that none of them do.”
Given Toronto’s pride in its city it’s amazing nothing has been done to date. Especially when you consider what is happening in other municipalities. The city of Edmonton is projected to have the largest urban population of Aboriginal people in Canada. As a result, their police force has created an Aboriginal relations unit to build partnerships and relationships with the community.
Historically, said Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht, Canadian police were ill-equipped to respond to the increase in an urban Aboriginal population. Staff Sgt. Dan Jones heads up the new department and sees part of his job as educating officers about Aboriginal culture, the history of colonization, residential schools, segregation and the impact such issues have had on the community. This will help to break down discrimination and racism amoung the police force, said Jones.
Lewis Cardinal, co-chair of the Aboriginal commission on human rights and justice, welcomed the new unit. In the past, he said, the relationship between Aboriginal people and city police had not been positive and many didn’t feel the police were their friend.
“The perception from our people is that racism is still practiced within the police force. They don’t feel that the police are interested in protecting Aboriginal people,” Cardinal said.
According to national statistics, an Aboriginal person is twice as likely to be the victim of a violent assault. Police are supposed to prevent violence and not add to the problem. Perhaps it’s time Toronto follows in the footsteps of other Canadian cities and forms a unit to deal with this problem before it’s too late. Racism among those who protect us should never be tolerated.