Deputy PM Freeland says police must understand systemic racism is a problem

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OTTAWA - Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says all federal agencies, including police, must understand that systemic racism is a problem, but advocates say they want more than the minister's acknowledgment that there is a problem.

“It's paying lip service,” said Dieulita Datus, the co-organizer of an anti-racism group in central Alberta.

“We are beyond simply understanding. We are beyond simply having conversations. What we need now is change - systematic change.”

Freeland's comment came in response to media questions Wednesday about the commanding officer of the Alberta RCMP saying there is no systemic racism in Canadian policing.

“It is very important for all federal government institutions, including the police, to operate from an understanding that systemic racism is a problem for us here in Canada, to not be complacent about that, and we have to work together against it,” she said.

Freeland added that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair had spoken to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki about acknowledging racism.

“We know that a really big challenge for our government and for all of us is, first of all, of course, to acknowledge that this systemic racism exists and to take concrete action to work against it and, ultimately, to dismantle it,” Freeland said.

Later Wednesday, in an story published in The Globe and Mail, Lucki disputed that there's systemic racism in the force and that the problem is unconscious bias of a minority of officers who fail to follow RCMP values.

“I really struggle with the term `systemic racism,”' Lucki was quoted as saying. “I think that if systemic racism is meaning that racism is entrenched in our policies and procedures, I would say that we don't have systemic racism.”

On Monday, Alberta Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said Canada is different than the United States, in response to a question about the wave of protests around the world following the death of a George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis last month.

“I don't believe that racism is systemic through Canadian policing. I don't believe it's systemic through policing in Alberta,” Zablocki told reporters in Edmonton.

But he did say that racism is “prevalent” in all aspects of society, including in police services.

Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld weighed in Wednesday, saying that he had thought there was no systemic racism within his department until he talked to Black Lives Matter demonstrators.

“Two weeks ago, I might have told you, 'No.' And I thought that was the case,” Neufeld said.

“I think when we listened downtown, when we were hearing the community talk about situations they've experienced, it does make you stop and think.”

Datus, who co-founded Ubuntu - Mobilizing Central Alberta in Red Deer, Alta. with Sadia Khan, said Zablocki's comment is naive and shows a lack of dialogue with communities of colour.

Khan, however, added that Freeland's response also shows a lack insight about what demonstrators are asking for: real action on racism.

Simply recognizing systemic racism exists is not sufficient for a federal minister anymore, said El Jones, a community activist in Halifax.

“If (Freeland) wants to deal with racism, she could deal with migrant work conditions. If she wants to deal with racism, she could talk about federal prisons. She has the power to do all those things,” Jones said.

She added that many reports and inquiries could have been acted on prior to recent demonstrations. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls called for policing reforms, including teaching officers about the “history of police in the oppression and genocide of Indigenous People.”

Jones said people are not going to the streets to see politicians take a knee or recognize issues that Black and Indigenous people have always experienced. They want a promise and action.

“What does it mean to acknowledge racism exists?” she asked.

“The only reason it means something is if you are then prepared to do something about it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2020.

- By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg, with files from Bill Graveland in Calgary