Ottawa police serve food, build bridges, at Inuit Christmas party
Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar, found guilty of discreditable conduct, serves up potatoes
OTTAWA—Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar, dressed in a navy Ottawa Police Service polo shirt, scoops up mashed potatoes from a large aluminum vat at the table and serves it to a young Inuk girl, smiling widely.
He takes out a folded paper airplane and hands it to the girl while he makes a silly face, then gets back to mashed-potato duty.
The Royal Canadian Legion’s Vanier branch was the scene of this year’s annual Tungasuvvingat Inuit annual Christmas party Dec. 10 and, as in previous years, Inuit and friends packed the event.
Ottawa-based Inuit leaders such as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed and National Inuit Youth Council president Maatalii Okalik attended this year’s party too, but they weren’t the only notable guests.
Several members of the Ottawa Police Service—including local newsmaker Hrnchiar—came to serve lunch to Inuit guests in an effort to rebuild a relationship deeply strained after Hrnchiar made racist online comments following the death of Cape Dorset artist Annie Pootoogook in September.
“The comments had a profound effect on the community, the police service, and the police officer himself,” said Sgt. Dave Zackrias, who leads the race and diversity team at the OPS and is on the board of directors at the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre. “We have a strong foundation that these relationships are built on and this relationship has been tested.”
Zackrias said Hrnchiar reached out to him right away asking for help to connect to the community so he could apologize.
“To rebuild public confidence it’s going to take time,” Zackrias said. “It’s a journey, and it can’t be on the police clock. It has to be on the community’s clock, when the community is ready.
“[Hrnchiar] is taking on the responsibility and he wants to make it right. He wants to be the ambassador within our organization to educate and build up his peers,” Zackrias said.
Zackrias said this kind of mentorship is important since police work can isolate officers and prevent them from seeing the bigger picture. The OPS needs to recognize that people’s lived experiences are their reality and that they cannot be discounted or dismissed, he said.
“We need to get a better understanding of what those root causes are, and address them, not just the symptoms,” Zackrias said.
Ottawa’s top cop, Chief Charles Bordeleau, was also at the TI party, volunteering on the serving line as well. He took a moment to speak with Nunatsiaq News about rebuilding trust within the Inuit community.
“We had a breach in the relationship and it’s an important relationship we have to maintain,” Bordeleau said. “The Inuit community in Ottawa continues to grow and it’s important for us to be out there and to have conversations, to listen and to be responsive to the issues that the Inuit community are bringing forth to us.”
According to Jason LeBlanc, TI’s executive director, the organization decided as a group to invite police officers to this year’s Christmas party.
“We had some meetings about how we could reach out, how we could build bridges,” LeBlanc said. “I think it was kind of a mutual consensus that we wanted to identify positive venues, positive opportunities, creating those interactions that change the dialogue, shift the narrative.”
“I think all first-responders, not just police, are faced with the same challenge that when they interact with our community, it is not generally at the greatest moment in that person’s life,” LeBlanc sad. “So we discussed how to create spaces where they can do that in a positive way and see the humanity behind the surface and for both sides.”
The Christmas party is the Ottawa-based service organization’s biggest annual event, giving community members a welcome opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones, said Paani Zizman, TI’s executive assistant and organizer for this year’s party.
About 500 people attended this year’s event to reconnect with the community, indulge in some country food and take part in raffle draws for First Air and Canadian North tickets. There were games for the children, dancing and even a visit from Santa Claus.
Many community members and party attendees, including Uqitjuatsi Sageaktook, said the highlight of the party was the country food. But others, such as Annie Ningeok, said “it feels like we’re back home again.”