RCMP RCMP. Photo: Public Domain

Canada’s Mounted Police force is a deeply racist institution whose purpose has always been to inflict repressive violence, and needs to be abolished, argues John Clarke

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the country’s federal police institution, has just celebrated the 150th anniversary of its foundation. The force issued a statement to mark the occasion proclaiming that ‘(w)e are an organisation with a rich history, traditions and culture, and are proud of our accomplishments.’ However, despite such self-congratulation, along with a ‘cake and a special Sergeant Major’s parade,’ it was also necessary to sheepishly note that ‘(w)e acknowledge the mistakes of our past, and are using them to drive positive change for the future.’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also found it impossible to mark the occasion without addressing the rather tainted glory of the Mounties. Though he suggested that ‘the RCMP (is) one of the most respected police organisations in the world,’ he was compelled to declare that ‘while the errors of the past cannot be forgotten, they can be learned from.’ An outside observer might wonder why the patriotic parade seems to be facing some rain.

Colonial police

As these official celebrations unfolded across Canada, a rally took place outside the RCMP detachment on the Indigenous Cowichan territories, situated on Vancouver Island, ‘to demand justice for 15-year-old Carsyn Mackenzie Seaweed, whose sudden passing has rattled the community.’ In late May, Carsyn was found dying in the nearby town of Duncan ‘under suspicious circumstances.’ She ‘was found (covered by) pallets, cardboard and twigs. Tragically, Carsyn did not make it.’

The Cowichan Valley Citizen interviewed an RCMP spokesperson with regard to this horrific incident and reported that ‘investigators believed there to be no criminality involved.’ This ‘led to community outcry given the state in which the teen was found.’ The RCMP now insist that this was a ‘miscommunication’ and that they have been diligently responding all along but, even now, there is no homicide investigation underway.

The sickening indifference of the police to this appalling death is no aberration. ‘Indigenous women and girls are twelve times more likely to be murdered or to go missing than members of any other demographic group in Canada.’ In 2019, a national inquiry addressed this situation as one of ‘deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide.’ It called for ‘sweeping reforms to the justice system and policing in this country.’ Yet, four years later, an Indigenous community must rally to demand justice for one of this own in the face of utter police indifference.

The deplorable behaviour of the RCMP in response to Carsyn’s death can’t be understood in terms of policy failures or training deficiencies. The Mounties were formed and have always functioned as a colonial police force. Present-day RCMP officers receive a 26 week basic training ‘at Depot, the RCMP Academy in Regina, Saskatchewan.’ Recruits are told that ‘(b)eing an RCMP police officer demands a high level of self-discipline and RCMP police officers must always maintain control of their actions. To help recruits acquire this skill, a paramilitary environment exists.’

This proudly proclaimed ‘paramilitary environment’ emerges from the history of the force. Its immediate forerunner, the North-West Mounted Police, was modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary. Formed in 1873, this new force met the needs of ‘the settlement period of Canada’s colonisation.’ It was devoted to dispossessing the Indigenous people of the Great Plains and forcing them into semi-starvation conditions within an inadequate reserve system.

An illegal pass system was imposed on Indigenous people to force them to stay on the reserves and ‘the Mounties … frequently paraded through native settlements in order to intimidate the people and remind the natives they had to “stay in their place” … The Mounties were not ambassadors of goodwill or uniformed men sent to protect [Indigenous people]; they were the colonizer’s occupational forces and hence the oppressors of [First Nations] and Métis.’

The RCMP consistently functioned as an agency of colonial enforcement, legally codified under the Indian Act. This involved the dismantling of the traditional systems of Indigenous government and the suppression of cultural practices that preserved a sense of identity and cohesion. ‘Sun Dances were shut down by Mounties who sometimes jailed the participants.’

The greatest single exercise in the effort to crush Indigenous identity involved a decades-long process of removing children from their communities and confining them in residential schools, where thousands died. The RCMP was fully implicated in this whole process. It played a major role in forcing Indigenous children into the schools and its cops acted as ‘truant officers’, responsible for apprehending those who fled the facilities, while punishing their parents. The Mounties also helped to ensure that those responsible for the rampant sexual and physical abuse of children in these facilities were able to avoid any consequences.

Present realities

The RCMP has always shaped its repressive function in ways that serve the needs of Canada’s ruling class. It was active in the process of colonial dispossession and in subsequent efforts to contain Indigenous populations. Its origins and major part in Canada’s development as a settler state, however, haven’t prevented it from playing a repressive role beyond the Indigenous population. The Mounties have a long history of attacking trade unions and functioning as a highly political police force, employed against the left.

Many of the most important working-class struggles in Canada have had to contend with the repression of the RCMP. The force was used in the 1930s to try and prevent the organisation of the unemployed and, during the same period, it was at the forefront of efforts to criminalise and destroy the Communist Party.

While the RCMP is a federal police force, most Canadian provinces and many municipalities enter into service agreements that see the Mounties taking on police functions within those jurisdictions. This means that they are the operating police body outside of major urban areas in all but Quebec and Ontario. True to its original mandate, the RCMP polices more than 600 Indigenous communities across Canada.

The racist brutality that RCMP officers inflict on the Indigenous communities they are unleashed upon has frequently produced lethal results. This has reached such scandalous proportions that even the Commissioner of the force has been forced to reluctantly concede that its ranks are infused with ‘systemic racism.

When Indigenous people challenge the destructive behaviour of fossil-fuel companies on their land, the RCMP is ever ready to act as a security detail for those interests. The brutal activities of the RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group, in British Columbia have been especially notorious in this regard. Over a five-year period, ‘almost $50 million has been spent on the efforts of this special unit to enforce injunctions obtained by the petroleum and forestry sectors.’

When the RCMP prepared a ‘militarised raid’ in 2019 against Wet’suwet’en land defenders, who were challenging the construction of a pipeline through their territory, the notes they drew up at a planning meeting suggested ‘lethal overwatch is req’d.’ Police tactical units cleared the camp with snipers posted and ready to kill. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate who the RCMP serves and protects and against whom it directs its repressive power.

Political leaders would have us believe that some mistakes may have been made along the way, but that the RCMP can be changed for the better. The Mounties themselves, fully aware that they have unleashed widespread distrust and anger, tell us that they are going to start ‘treating all those we serve with dignity and respect, and carrying out our police work in ways that builds trust and confidence.’

There is simply no basis for taking these empty assurances seriously. The promise of police reform has a hollow ring at the best of times but Canada’s colonial police force, the RCMP, is an irredeemable repressive institution that can only be abolished.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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