OTTAWA — Systemic racism exists in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday, a day after Commissioner Brenda Lucki told three media outlets she is “struggling” over the term’s definition.
Trudeau’s comments challenge Lucki’s apparent unease over the issue. In interviews with The Globe and Mail, Global News and CTV News, the commissioner said “unconscious bias” exists within the force, but was reluctant to recognize that there is systemic racism within the agency.
“Systemic racism is an issue right across the country in all our institutions including in all our police forces including in the RCMP. That’s what systemic racism is,” Trudeau said.
“In many cases it’s not deliberate, it’s not intentional, it’s not aggressive individual acts of racism, although those obviously exist.”
The prime minister was criticized last week for his own initial milquetoast responses on systemic racism in light of anti-police brutality and anti-Black racism protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd.
Speaking to reporters at an Ottawa-area business, Trudeau said it’s difficult for him, as prime minister, to recognize the federal government is “regularly guilty of systemic discrimination.”
He did not provide specific examples, but instead said the Canadian government “is enough of a big system that has gone on for so long that has been created in so many ways that we know that there are unfairnesses in our systems, it’s just really hard to change.”
Lucki’s comments raised eyebrows given statistics that show Indigenous people to be disproportionately represented in incarceration rates.
More than 30 per cent of inmates in prisons are Indigenous, despite Indigenous peoples making up just five per cent of the population. Racial profiling has also been a long-standing concern among human rights advoates.
Despite the sharp contrast in words, Trudeau said he still has confidence in the top Mountie.
“I know Commissioner Lucki and our government and all Canadians are going to be working with racialized Canadians and Indigenous Canadians to do more, to continue the work,” he said.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May had more pointed words to say about the RCMP, calling the agency a “racist institution.”
Watch: ‘Is that the best?’ Indigenous services minister asks of RCMP efforts to deal with racism. Story continues below video.
Politicians and police agencies have been feeling renewed pressure to address systemic racism after pain and anger over the nature of Floyd’s killing prompted Canadians to turn their gaze inward. The recent deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Chantel Moore after police interactions have drawn renewed calls for change and accountability.
During the daily ministers’ press conference, Indigenous Services Canada Minister Marc Miller said that systemic racism exists in the RCMP, and “there’s no question about it.”
He explained in French that systemic racism is what’s left behind by previous historic racist policies. Miller acknowledged that he has witnessed systemic barriers at the federal level of politics.
“We’ve had incidents within the House where people have been judged based on the colour of their skin,” he said, adding that there’s “a lot” of work to do.
“And recognizing that is not a sign of weakness, I think it’s a sign of maturity as a country. I think that we are at our best when we question ourselves, when we question our instincts.”
Miller said it’s fair for the RCMP to face scrutiny, suggesting the force has been slow in its actions.
He referenced Lucki’s promise in 2018 to “examine the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada” and to review ways to prevent and eliminate violence.
“That was a promise two years ago. Now, I look at the events of the last couple of weeks ... and I ask myself, ‘Is that the best? Is that the absolute best?’ Because that was the promise that was made two years ago.”
Velma Morgan, chair of Operation Black Vote Canada, said she was pleased to hear the prime minister acknowledge how systemic racism exists, but is more interested in what political leaders will do next.
She has a few ideas on how the government and political parties can address systemic barriers to eliminate avoidable blind spots. Morgan helms an organization that mobilizes Black Canadians to run for public office.
“The only way we can actually tackle it and deal with it is to recognize it,” she told HuffPost Canada in an interview. “Lack of opportunities is a systemic barrier.”
“Let’s see who’s at the table and who’s not at the table. Whose voices are being heard and whose voices are not being heard.”
She said she wants to see political parties nominate more Black candidates in winnable election ridings. In federal politics, she explained, there’s diversity at the junior level, but it’s evident that Black political staff are not getting promotions at more senior positions where the “real decisions” are being made.
“Studies have shown that when you have diverse voices at the table, the outcomes in policies are better for everybody involved,” she said. “I don’t really understand why people would not want to have different and diverse voices at any decision-making table.”
With the groundswell of public support to see anti-Black racism barriers torn down, Morgan said she thinks it’s time for departments and agencies to conduct internal audits.
“Let’s see who’s at the table and who’s not at the table. Whose voices are being heard and whose voices are not being heard,” she said.
“And if you realize that if there’s a segment of the population, Black people, who are not there then we need to do something to change it because that’s a systemic barrier, that’s systemic racism.”