John Clarke on the horrific murders of Indigenous people in Saskatchewan and the track record of the RCMP in failing these communities
In communities that face poverty and racism, it is often said of the police that they are always there when you don’t want them to be but never around when you actually need them. That common insight comes to mind in the case of the horrible spate of stabbings in Saskatchewan, on September 4, which left 10 people dead and 18 more in hospital.
The attacks took place in the Indigenous community of James Smith Cree Nation and in the nearby village of Weldon. Such was the violence that was inflicted that ‘police were investigating 13 separate crime scenes in relation to the attacks.’ The RCMP has jurisdiction in most parts of Saskatchewan and they issued a dangerous person alert on two suspects, Damien Sanderson, 31, and his brother Myles Sanderson, 30. The day after the killings, Damien Sanderson was found dead in the Cree community. He had suffered injuries the police say were not self-inflicted and his brother may also be wounded but is still at large.
The first call reporting a stabbing went in at 5:40 am on the 4th and by 9:45 am an alert had been issued indicating assaults at multiple locations. This included the suggestion that some of the victims may have been randomly attacked but, beyond this, very little information has been released that might provide any indication of the particular motive for the stabbings.
RCMP’s track record
While we can’t know just how much the RCMP’s investigation has revealed so far, their lack of candour in this matter is disturbing, given their track record. Was there a threat of violence that was disregarded? Was everything possible done to intervene in a timely fashion to prevent further attacks? Are details of what took place that might help the community deal with the tragedy being withheld?
In April 2020, ‘the worst mass murder in modern Canadian history unfolded’ over a thirteen-hour period in Portapique, Nova Scotia. The RCMP’s handling of this deadly incident created a national scandal. ‘..it took nearly 18 hours after Gabriel Wortman’s rampage began for the police to bother to go door to door in Portapique to find out if people were safe in their homes.’ A terrified twelve-year-old boy placed an emergency call and reported that his parents had been murdered about an hour after the killings began. Yet, ‘the police took no serious action for several hours.’
When they respond to lethal attacks of this kind, ‘The RCMP continues to show itself to lag behind events. They release very little information to the public, and at the same time call for the public’s help in locating the culprits.’ This failure to intervene effectively in the face of deadly incidents is enormously telling and speaks to the role that the police play in this society.
The notion that police are primarily concerned with solving a crime or keeping communities safe is a carefully cultivated myth that simply doesn’t correspond to reality. As I have argued previously, ‘Policing was justified in terms of controlling crime but its function from the outset was actually one of class-based social control.’ This means that ‘the main day-to-day function of most police officers is to intimidate and exert control over targeted communities.’ This ‘patrol and control’ function is at the heart of policing as it actually exists and the safety and wellbeing of those targeted communities are simply not a priority.
It is of enormous significance that the recent lethal stabbing rampage in Saskatchewan unfolded in an Indigenous community. The RCMP is the force in Canada that plays the main role in policing such communities and its history of abuse and neglect is appallingly dreadful. Its most senior officer has been forced to acknowledge the RCMP is infused with ‘systemic racism’ because the evidence of this is so utterly overwhelming.
Human Rights Watch points out that, in Canada, ‘indigenous women and girls continue to go missing or be murdered in unacceptably large numbers.’ In this situation,
‘The failure of law enforcement authorities to deal effectively with the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada is just one element of the dysfunctional relationship between the Canadian police and indigenous communities.’
This complete failure to protect Indigenous women is particularly indefensible in the case of Highway 16 in British Columbia. Women forced to hitchhike on this road have been the victims of deadly assault for decades without any effective action being taken. ‘So many women and girls have vanished or turned up dead along one stretch of the road that residents call the Highway of Tears.’ The RCMP established a special unit to investigate but the killings continued unabated.
Robert Pickton owned a farm in Coquitlam, British Columbia. In 2002, police raided his farm, and Pickton was charged with the killings of 26 women, most of them Indigenous. A full two years prior to this, the police had been aware that Pickton ‘was "hunting" for women while in disguise.’ During the time they delayed taking action, 14 more women disappeared.
Doubtless, the RCMP and other police forces in Canada are full of officers that care little for the lives of Indigenous women and who feel little sense of urgency when they are the victims of violence. However, the effective hierarchy in the value of human life that is in operation here is not simply attributable to the callousness or incompetence of individual cops. If the RCMP targets, rather than protects, Indigenous women and the communities they are part of, the explanation is to be found in the force’s history and the continuing role it plays in Canadian society.
The forerunner of the RCMP, the North West Mounted Police, was created in 1874. It was modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary and its formation indicated that ‘Canada did not seek to protect Indigenous people but to protect itself and settler corporate interests from further Indigenous resistance that would occur if settlers were allowed to run amok.’ The new force was used to drive Indigenous people into impoverished reserves, to impose an illegal pass system on them and ‘to suppress Native cultural traditions such as the Sun Dance, and to apprehend Indigenous children to be forced into residential schools as part of Canada’s (ongoing) assimilation policy.’
To this day, the racist violence that the RCMP inflicts on the Indigenous communities that receive ‘police services’ from it is notorious and undeniable. To expect diligent and effective efforts to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those communities by RCMP officers is simply absurd. There is still much about the killings in James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon that has yet to be dragged out into the light of day but the scale of the violence, the duration it occurred over and the ominous reluctance of the RCMP to share what it knows, are all highly disturbing.
Police forces like the RCMP don’t keep communities safe and, when horrific acts of rage and violence break out, there are hard lessons in just who the police are there to serve and protect in this society.
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