Overly Simplistic Report on Thunder Bay Police Treatment of Indigenous People

Commentary, Culture Wars, Brian Giesbrecht

A damning report alleges Thunder Bay Police treat Indigenous people in a “systemically racist” way. With the police and city politicians blamed, there has been a flood of announcements promising change. No doubt there will be cultural sensitivity courses and other measures, positions such as “Indigenous relations officer” created, and consultants hired. While the hope is that those actions will solve the problem, but is that likely?

Is Thunder Bay’s police any more racist than any other police force? While all police forces likely have a few true racists, I suspect the majority of Thunder Bay’s police and officials are not. However, Thunder Bay police encounters a disproportionate number of situations involving Indigenous people (the result of an elevated crime rate of Indigenous people – a phenomenon with complex historical causes).

This is somewhat similar to the American situation, where a black man is eight times as likely to be involved in the commission of a crime. In the case of Indigenous men in Canada, the numbers are worse – in Saskatchewan, an Indigenous man is 32 times as likely to commit a crime as a non-Indigenous man. I suspect the Thunder Bay situation is similar.

Indigenous people residing in Thunder Bay come mainly from surrounding First Nations’ communities, which are deeply troubled places. Alcohol abuse, welfare dependency, and all of the pathologies that stem from those grim factors (such as criminal involvement and child neglect) make it virtually inevitable that people coming to the city from those communities are highly over-represented in the groups of people that police officers have to deal with.

Those factors make it inevitable that police encounters feature Indigenous people who have been drinking. Problem drinking is virtually a way of life in many deeply troubled Indigenous communities. Police encounters with inebriated people are dangerous and volatile situations; situations most likely to lead to tragic results. Police officers are entitled to protect themselves first in dangerous situations, and confronting Indigenous people over potential crimes and poor behavior has the unfortunate effect of hardening attitudes.

The situation is a highly complex problem that should not be blamed on any one party, and recommendations coming from a one-sided report will likely do more harm than good. By scapegoating police and ignoring the complexity of the situation, the only people likely to benefit will be those who are able to collect some of the “government money” that will inevitably be thrown at the problem.

Some of the spotlight should shine on the chiefs running First Nations communities. It is not the fault of either the police officers or the city politicians that so many of the people coming from those communities have so many problems. Chiefs and band councillors are well-paid to manage those communities. Is it not reasonable to ask them to account for the fact that so many of their constituents do so badly?

But, regrettably, Gerry McNeilly’s Report does not ask Indigenous politicians any tough questions. This has been the history of many one-sided inquiries into Indigenous-related issues. The formula remains simple: victimhood culture with Indigenous people as victims.

The blame always goes to others and nothing changes. And, nothing changes as long as this simplistic formula is followed.