In a recent presentation to Canada’s First Nations leaders, RCMP Commissioner Paulson told his audience:“I understand that there are racists in my police force, I don’t want them to be in my police force.”
That was a surprising comment from the leader of Canada’s principal police agency, whose main role in the Canadian justice system is to administer justice in a fair and equitable way. Very rarely does someone in a powerful position admit to such serious concerns in an organization which he or she leads. Yet, where else than among First Nations leaders could such acknowledgement start an open dialogue?
Years ago when travelling to the Yukon, I wondered at the names of towns and cities in Canada. As I drove north, I wondered how the names of towns reflected the atmosphere around contact between First Nations culture and European culture. What struck me was the names of places like Fort Saskatchewan, Fort McMurray, Fort Chipewyan, Fort Vermilion, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson. Fort MacLeod. Fort Simpson… Edmonton was once called Fort Edmonton and Calgary was called Fort Calgary. These towns represented military installations as in other parts of the British Empire. These were paramilitary units that would protect the interests of a centralized British government. As with other places like Africa and India, there was a clear distinction between the local natives and the military forces.
I wonder if racism is part of that heritage, much of which has, of course, changed over the years, but which nevertheless is an attitude handed down unconsciously, without much thinking or reflection, a reaction to someone else being different. As with our attitude to women, older people, disabled or people of other faiths, how much of this is a learnt response, where we make an big issue of our differences instead of getting to know who the person really is?