“You should be on the reserve where you belong.”
Racist comments like this were something I’d overhear in quiet conversations behind my back, or from strangers I could easily dismiss. This was different. The comment was personal, the words specific to me. The uniform he wore was the same as mine.
He was one of my senior officers in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which made everything worse. We had both sworn oaths to “faithfully, diligently and impartially execute and perform the duties required of” us.
That duty should have prevented him from saying what he said.
I had a duty to respond to his behaviour.
My mother and father are both Cree-descendant Metis from a Metis settlement in northern Alberta. Their heritage is evident in their skin tone, features and hair colour. I am white-passing with thinning hair that looks better shaved. My facial features draw a “Yeah, I can see it” after I mention I’m Indigenous.
My mom’s first language was Cree, but she didn’t speak Cree to me when I was young. She had been bullied for her accented English growing up, and wanted to protect me from a similar fate by withholding that piece of our culture. I worked hard to eliminate my accent, to speak “white English.” By the time I started my 17-year career, you’d only hear my accent when I was tired.
I joined the RCMP because I wanted to help people and make the world a better place. I am fairly certain that most officers join the RCMP for the same reasons I did. I was posted to a detachment that policed the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, two hours northeast of Edmonton. The vast majority of the officers posted there were non-Indigenous, and many were interacting with Indigenous people for the first time.
Policing involves confronting social disorder and trauma; it is often disheartening and frustrating. For us Indigenous officers, these frustrations were magnified and exacerbated by the stress of dealing with abuse from our co-workers.
When new officers were posted to our detachment, they soon figured out which of their co-workers were Indigenous and would guard their language around us. Over time, that concern faded. Respectful language was replaced by “Chief,” “redskin, “wagon burner” and “f**king Indian.” They bought into damaging stereotypes, labelling those on the reserve as “drunks,” “freeloaders,” “uneducated.” These comments were rarely made directly to Indigenous officers, but my fair skin made it easier for some co-workers to forget my heritage.
In that environment, eventually even I stopped hearing the casual racism for what it was. I stopped reacting to it, I did nothing to address it. Racism flourishes in acceptance and apathy. In the RCMP, both were present.
But “You should be on the reserve where you belong” was said in such a way that it was impossible to ignore.
The fiery reaction that I instantly felt didn’t allow for a polite response, but he was my supervisor. I froze.
Afterward, I followed the advice I had personally given to countless complainants: talk to the police, let them help find a solution to the problem. That same day I spoke to my trusted corporal. We had worked together for a few years, had been in dangerous situations.
“You must have misunderstood or missed the joke.”
I was told that complaining would make me look like I was soft, a whiner.
My trust in the organization and in my co-workers was severely damaged.
I called a respected higher-ranking officer. He oversaw relations between Indigenous communities and the RCMP. He had the respect of the reserve and of officers working the street — mine, too.
He told me that cops have to stand by one another. “You need to think carefully about whether or not people will trust you if you speak out.”
The subtext was clear: if you press the issue, you will be on your own. Policing is a job that fosters an “us versus them” mindset. Officers that speak out can, and will, find themselves in life-threatening situations without backup. They will find that they don’t have support to deal with the trauma they experience in the course of their duties. You learn early in your career not to cross the “thin blue line.”
So I did nothing. I tried to forget that my organization, an organization of people who “stand by each other,” was unwilling to stand by me.
I couldn’t forget it. It ate at me. If backup took longer than usual, I couldn’t help wondering if it was a genuine delay or if my frustrated complaint was responsible.
My trust in the organization and in my co-workers was severely damaged. I began distancing myself from other officers, once my friends. I was short with them. I didn’t engage socially, and barely engaged professionally.
I left the RCMP in November of 2011. The most lasting memento of my time as an officer is a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder due to the physical and emotional trauma I experienced on duty.
‘An organization that denies racism is ill-prepared to combat it’
We are seeing protests around the world calling for changes to address systemic racism in society generally and in policing, specifically. At the time of this writing, eight people have been killed by police in Canada in 2020.
Videos showing questionable police violence leave me reflecting on whether or not the force I used as an officer was appropriate and justified. The law and the training are clear: police officers’ use of force must be based on the threat presented by the person being arrested at the time of the arrest. I just can’t see the violence in these videos meeting this definition.
I don’t see change coming by implementing new training protocols or supplying police with body cameras.
It upsets me seeing police using force on someone who is already under control, or officers using more force than required. And it angers me seeing that the victims in these videos are too often racialized. When the videos focus on RCMP officers, I have to wonder if things would be different if I had taken a stronger stand.
How our society is policed needs to change, starting with how it upholds and perpetuates the systemic racism I saw and experienced. Racist attitudes factor into enforcement decisions: BIPOC citizens get stopped by police at a higher rate than white people and they get charged more frequently than white people. These decisions are largely made by front-line police officers based on their experience and their training, which itself is tainted by racism.
RCMP brass initially denied that systemic racism existed in their organization before quickly walking back that statement. Police chiefs in Calgary and Edmonton acknowledged the systemic racism in their organization. Although reluctant, these admissions are encouraging. An organization that denies racism is ill-prepared to combat it.
In my experience, I don’t see change coming by implementing new training protocols or supplying police with body cameras. Neither of these proposals address the key issue: police are tasked with more than their training prepares them for, and BIPOC Canadians are suffering and dying as a result.
We need to defund the police. Defunding the police means diverting money from police budgets to enhance or develop agencies better suited to deal with non-criminal matters. This would prevent police officers from dealing with situations they are not trained to deal with so that fewer incidents result in escalation and police resorting to using force.
I was asked recently if my time in the RCMP was meaningful. It was disheartening to admit that it wasn’t. I should have pressed harder to address the racism that I saw. I should have been brave enough to challenge the structures that I knew were tainted.
I wasn’t brave enough. I didn’t live up to my oath; the problem that existed then persists now.
I still have my RCMP Red Serge. It was once a symbol of pride and of service. Now it’s just a sad reminder of a worthy cause that I wish I had taken on.
Chad Haggerty is an Indigenous student-at-law in Calgary. He has overcome many obstacles in his life, including a disadvantaged childhood, abuse, racism, PTSD and a conviction for assault. During his time as a Mountie, he was suspended for using excessive force twice. He resigned from the RCMP in 2011. He plans on using his knowledge, background and experience to help address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the Canadian judicial system.
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