I’ve been sitting on this story for some time now.
It was almost a year ago that I was invited to participate in an interesting discussion regarding the social evolution of the Winnipeg Police Service.
Well, I wasn’t actually invited.
I was contacted by a member of the Service who expressed concerns after hearing a rumour that infamous Police critic Gordon Sinclair Jr was planning to interview several Indigenous WPS Officer’s to discuss issues of race and racism with particular emphasis being placed on the twenty-fifth (25th) anniversary of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI).
It was obvious from the things I was hearing that trust was going to be a significant issue that might impede frank and honest dialogue. Mr Sinclair’s history with the WPS is no secret to anyone. He’s largely viewed as a spiteful irritant who infuses his stories with his own bias and vitriol for an Organization and profession he’s perceived to loathe.
I never saw Sinclair like that.
I’ve always viewed him as a committed journalist who’s been given a platform to share his opinions with a wide audience. He has a right to express his ideas and earn a living at it if someone is inclined to give him financial compensation for doing so. That’s the beauty of living in a democracy.
The question that remained was; “What kind of literary licence might Mr Sinclair take with his interpretation of the Officer’s collective thoughts and experiences?”
Enter the retired Police veteran turned committed journalist who’s created a platform to share his opinions, albeit with a smaller audience. Fortunately, my official request to take part as an observer during the discussions was granted by the Police Service. The hope was my presence would serve as a counterbalance and ensure an accurate portrayal of the interviews would be published.
The Officer’s selected to the panel, two men and two women, represented over eighty-five (85) years of collective service in Law Enforcement. They also possessed a great breadth of experience in many areas of Policing that varied from Uniform Patrol, Traffic, Community Relations, Vice, Organized Crime and Homicide.
When Mr Sinclair entered the room I sensed he was somewhat taken aback by my presence. The perplexed look on his face may have been more of a function of surprise than anything else. Regardless, he took it all in stride and started the session.
The discussions that followed would be revealing on many fronts.
The Path to the Police Service;
The Officers shared stories regarding their journey into the world of policing.
One officer indicated she was only sixteen (16) years of age when she became a mother. During this time she was working in a restaurant to provide for her child. The restaurant happened to be owned and operated by a woman whose son-in-law was a police officer. The officer, Constable Curtis Stefaniuk, recognized her potential and recruited her to join the Police Service.
“He changed my life,” she said.
A male officer indicated he joined the Police Service because he had a strong desire to help people. He credits the WPS push to recruit Aboriginal police officers as a game changer for him.
The second male officer broke it down to basics. “I just needed a job,” he said. He was busting his ass doing seasonal work for the railway and was looking for more meaningful employment when he applied to the WPS.
The second female officer credits him for being an outstanding role model for her. “You have me to thank for your job,” he responds to her as they all share a laugh.
The stories from there took a decidedly personal and intimate turn.
It was remarkable.
The accounts of childhood struggles were not much different from the stories you read in the newspaper when criminal defense attorneys take the podium in a Court of Law to share tragic tales designed to reduce a defendants sentence. Alcoholic parent (s), family dysfunction, multiple siblings, Welfare, Social Services, Child and Family Services, Food-banks, and adversarial encounters with police.
There could be no mistake about it, these officers were exceptional people who had to overcome astronomical odds before they would become Law Enforcement Professionals.
That’s not all.
The choice to be a police officer has drawn hostility and scorn from certain family members and members of the Aboriginal Community. “My brothers hate me because I’m a cop,” one Officer said. “My mother is not a fan of the Police,” another one admitted.
The Officers all had one thing in common. A strong desire to make a change and travel down a good path. “It all starts at home with parents and leadership. We need people to step up and take responsibility for their lives,” one Officer stressed. The same Officer was proud to tell us his son was a successful applicant to the Police Cadet program, a stepping stone to the Winnipeg Police Service.
And so a new family tradition begins….
The stories were powerful and moving.
The officers were remarkably candid as they shared their experiences. I could see Mr Sinclair was itching to get on topic.
“Have any of you ever seen cops being racist towards Aboriginal people,” he asked.
“No,” was the collective response.
“Police don’t look at criminals because of the colour of their skin, we see them as criminals,” one female officer quipped.
“We’re the people putting the handcuffs on. We’re the focus of their dismay. The Police are the ones to blame,” a male officer explained.
“Before people criticize what the Police do they should try to understand that it takes more than just the Police to make a difference,” another officer suggested.
These didn’t seem to be the answers Mr Sinclair was looking for. No suggestions of racism, bias or racial profiling. The officers preached responsibility, leadership and community. Their messages were positive and optimistic.
The next question from Mr Sinclair was highly revealing;
“What culture do you feel closer too, the Aboriginal Culture or the Police Culture?”
The question clearly caught the officers off guard as they struggled to find the correct words to express their feelings. Then it happened.
“Both, I love both cultures,” one of the female officers responded.
It was the perfect answer.
The way the question was presented it seemed the officers were asked to make a distinct choice. It was as if it had to be one or the other. It seemed Mr Sinclair was suggesting the two cultures were mutually exclusive and could not co-exist.
As I sat there I thought, that wasn’t a fair question. This was not Sophie’s choice. It seemed to me the question was infused with racism and prejudice.
How ironic I thought, Mr Sinclair had come on a fact-finding expedition to uncover racism and prejudice within the Winnipeg Police Service and only managed to expose his own.
Maybe that’s why many months have passed and no story made it to the press.
That’s a shame because there was a story to be told here.
It’s a story about a Police Service evolving to more accurately reflect the demographics of the public it serves.
It’s a story about Indigenous people who had the courage to break the cycle and create a new reality for themselves and their families.
It’s a story about new traditions, inclusion, hope and change.
If you look deep enough, you’ll see it’s a story that lends a degree of credibility to a philosophical Police Chief’s belief that we can reduce crime through social development.
Unfortunately, it’s a story that didn’t get told.
Cops, Cowboys and Indians, nothing to see here folks.
Winnipeg Police Service Demographics:
Sworn Police Officers
- 1246 white
- 158 indigenous
- 103 visible minorities
*Source: 2013 WPS Annual Report