I have mentioned in previous posts that our little province in eastern Canada usually flies under the radar. This can be both a good thing and not so good thing, but by and large it brings a peaceful lifestyle in a beautiful place where, for the most part, people get along well. We’ve had a few horrifying and heartbreaking policing events gone wrong, like the rest of the world, but we’ve lived in a little bubble where the public trust for the police has been high. At least I thought so. Until now, the recent police tragedies have been cops being killed by perpetrators. To be clear, those two tragic and senseless acts were carried out by two separate (white) men in two different towns over a 6-year period; it’s not a frequent occurrence, thank God. But this time is different, very different.
Our little backwater has become the national story of the moment for fatal police shootings – in these two cases Mounties – while responding to incidents with people with mental health issues. Shooting to kill. That is not supposed to be the Canadian way. What happened to de-escalation? One of these two cases – less than two weeks ago, in the midst of a worldwide movement calling for a less aggressive and race-targeted approach to policing – was a call from the victim’s home for a wellness check. A wellness check, for crying out loud. That screams out as a cry for help from someone with a mental health issue. And the end result was a 26-year old mother shot to death. By a Mountie. And she was indigenous.
Then just 4 days ago, as astounding as this is to believe – still in the midst of a worldwide movement calling for a less aggressive approach to policing and with awareness of the tragic case of a young indigenous woman having been killed by a police officer the week before – another 911 call came in about someone who was having a mental health episode in another part of the province. And, although it defies belief, this person was also shot and killed by the attending Mountie. A 48-year old father and friend who had been at a BBQ at his pastor’s house. And he was indigenous.
The news reports say that both these people had knives. They also were suffering from mental health crises. That was known. Is shooting to kill the way police in our province usually approach charged situations? If so, we sure as hell need a discussion about that. Are they trained to de-escalate mental health crises? If not, why are they there? And – I hate to ask this question – would they have done the same thing for anyone, white, indigenous, black, or Arab? I’m not sure what I want the answer to be. The only other fatal shootings by police in New Brunswick I could find listed in the national registry was one in each of 2013, 2014, and 2015, none of which were indigenous people. So, no, killing by police officers is not something that happens here often. And the fact that it has suddenly happened twice in less than two weeks when called to attend to something other than a clear-cut crime, while the world is protesting the use of extreme force by police, is hugely troubling. And both victims were indigenous people.
These two troubling cases may prove to have nothing to do with indigenous racism – maybe – but they certainly raise flags about how police here are trained to handle situations appropriately and whether they should be responding to mental health checks at all. In both cases they unnecessarily escalated the situation, shot to kill instead of contain, and ended the life of someone whose help they had been called to provide. And we talk about reconciliation. Right.
I said at the outset that by and large New Brunswickers lead a peaceful lifestyle in a beautiful place where, for the most part, people get along well. To qualify that, I say that from my experiences as a white person. The overwhelming majority of New Brunswickers are white. They don’t have any experience with being targeted or suspected without cause. I’ve lived here happily for 50 years and it was only after reading an article in our local paper on the weekend that I fully realized how naïve and sheltered I’ve been from the reality others have faced during that time. Those others would include people I know well. The article, in the Daily Gleaner, was entitled “Black in Fredericton: three residents tell their stories”. (This is the link, but you won’t be able to read it unless you can get past their subscription firewall.)
The three people include a 25-year old woman, a 40-year old man, and a 64-year old woman. All three are native-born Canadians, one a first-generation Canadian raised in Ontario and now living here, one a 5th generation Fredericton native who now lives in Calgary, and the other a 6th generation descendant of Black Loyalists. The man speaks of being the target of bullying throughout school with nobody (not even a teacher) sticking up for him, of being stopped in his car several times by cops with guns drawn, being told to get out of the car and lay on the ground. With a gun drawn? What?? Lay on the ground? For a traffic stop?? Here???!
The 64-year woman speaks of being stopped by cops and them not believing she would own her own car; must belong to someone else. This a gentle older woman whose family has lived here for 6 generations, treated with such disrespect … here. And on it goes. They all spoke of having to learn to always have their guard up, always be extra polite just to be safe, no matter what, and to get used to the fact that assumptions of poverty, poor education, and potential crime are always there in the public’s expectation and that of the police, just because of the colour of their skin. And these are people who lead the same kind of lives all of us do. Except that their skin has a different colour. Here, in the sparkling little town of Fredericton, New Brunswick.
My guess is that our indigenous neighbours would have similar tales to tell … or worse. [And for those readers who aren’t from New Brunswick, of the 15 Mi’kmaq and Maliseet First Nations in our province, 3 of our First Nations communities are within the greater Fredericton area, my home town.] Walk a mile in their shoes.
The outrage and screams for societal and structural change that began with the murder of George Floyd is light years late in arriving. Those of us without colour have lived parallel lives to those of our Black and Indigenous neighbours for centuries. We have been blind, some knowingly and some not so much so, and by being blind we’ve been enabling. We’re all meant to be treated equally and justly. This movement must continue without pause until true change is enacted and working justly and with compassion.
A blogging friend of mine, Irma, at her blog I Do Run, ended a recent post on racism with these words. They now serve as my mantra:
“I don’t have the answers … But one thing that I have learned from running – the more you do it, the better you get at it. The more we are actively anti-racist, the better we will be. We just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”