How a racist comment led to an unlikely friendship

Retired Ottawa police officer, once maligned for what he said about Annie Pootoogook, continues to make good

Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar meets Annie Pootoogook’s daughter, Napachie, for the first time in August 2017. She was four years old in this photo. (Photo courtesy of Veldon Coburn)

By Jorge Antunes

Chris Hrnchiar has a very special friend.

She’s 10 years old, her name is Napachie and she’s the daughter of Annie Pootoogook, a celebrated Inuk artist who died tragically in Ottawa’s Rideau River in 2016.

Pootoogook’s death made national news. And underneath an online story about it, Hrnchiar, then a forensic investigator with the Ottawa Police Service with a rank of sergeant, left two troubling comments.

He suggested Pootoogook “got drunk and fell in the river and drowned,” and that “typically Aboriginals have very short lifespans, talent or not.”

Those comments changed the course of Hrnchiar’s life.

“From the fire of [what happened] and all the bad things, came a lot of good things,” Hrnchiar said in a recent interview with Nunatsiaq News.

“A lot more understanding, a lot more healing and a lot more personal reflection.”

The Ottawa Police Service opened an investigation into Hrnchiar’s comments. He pleaded guilty to two counts of discreditable conduct under the Ontario Police Services Act. He was demoted for three months and underwent mandatory sensitivity training.

But Hrnchiar has gone on to dedicate much of his life to volunteering with the Inuit community in Ottawa, including fostering a lasting friendship with the man who originally called him out for his comments.

“The national media just excoriated him, there were people calling for his head,” said Veldon Coburn, a University of Ottawa political science professor.

Coburn has a personal connection to Pootoogook, having adopted her daughter Napachie a few years before her death. So it may not be surprising he called out Hrnchiar’s behaviour. What might be surprising is what came afterward.

Coburn did his own investigation into Hrnchiar’s character.

Coburn said he knew someone that worked for the Ottawa Police as a civilian, who reported back to him: “I know a lot of bad police…. Out of the entire police service, the one person who would never expect [to be] a hardened racist, would be Chris Hrnchiar.”

Hrnchiar was described as a man of faith — a Christian — devoted to his community and “a loveable guy.”

After Hrchiar’s guilty plea, Coburn sent him a letter and an Indigenous steak knife as a gift.

“His name was dragged through the mud in the media. And to me it was disproportionate,” he said.

“The public felt their was a deep-seated racism within him, and that he was very anti-Indigenous.”

Coburn concluded the comments were “probably an off the cuff remark where it’s just the natural reaction of so many people who have been acculturated to this. [Hrnchiar] realized he was wrong and he was going to take steps.”

Hrnchiar described meeting Coburn for the first time in April 2017 as very emotional.

Since then the two have become close friends.

The two text each other often. “We are very much in touch,” Coburn said.

Hrnchiar met Napachie for the first time in August 2017 at the annual Flotilla For Friendship. Every year in August, the event brings together Ottawa Police officers and Indigenous youth to foster positive relationships by having teams go canoeing along the Rideau River and having lunch together.

Napachie lept into Hrnchiar’s arms when they met, Coburn said. “They love each other. They are buddies.”

Since then, Napachie has taken to calling him Sgt. Chris.

Now retired, Hrnchiar still paddles with the flotilla and continues his volunteer work with Ottawa’s Inuit community. He said he believes it might take generations to heal the trauma experienced by Inuit but all he can do is try to build trust with people.

As for Coburn, he said his friendship with Hrnchiar reminds him about how much good there is in people, and how sometimes you’ll find it in surprising places.

“I would daresay Chris is a better person than I am,” he said.

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(20) Comments:

  1. Posted by Equity on

    Just once, it would be nice to see an Inuit person raked over the coals repeatedly in the media for an accidentally honest comment they make about a “Qaalunat” or “Kabloona” (which in itself is a racist term).

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    • Posted by Standard x2 on

      It’s a one-way street buddy, u didn’t get the memo?

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    • Posted by H.G. Omger on

      How are terms like Qaalunat” or “Kabloona” racist? I know they can sometimes be used derisively, but that’s not quite the same.

      I’d prefer that people didn’t assume the worst in each other and refrained from destroying reputations and careers because someone said something thoughtless, or even stupid. We’ve all done it. Everyone, even the most sanctimonious among us.

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      • Posted by Umingmak on

        I have never heard the word “qalunaat” used in anything but a negative and derogatory way. Its technical definition may not be racist, but it is absolutely used as a racist term.

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        • Posted by It Is Really A Very Simple Matter on

          It is absolutely used as a racist term.

          I have never heard it used in a non-derogatory way. How you see it doesn’t matter, you are not the receiving party of the abuse.

          If you don’t know how to refer to people using the terms that they use to refer to themselves, then ask them.

          If Eskimo was imposed on Inuit and they prefer to be properly referred to as Inuit, then it is no different for ‘qalunaat’. You don’t get to make those sorts of decisions on someone else’s identity. Use the word that they use to identify themselves.

          If you can’t accept and respect that, then you have no right to ask that people use Inuit instead of Eskimo. It is really that simple.

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          • Posted by Eskimos Fan on

            Amen.

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        • Posted by Johnny Oh Ima on

          You perceived that it only use in derogatory terms, like everything else, every ethnic group will use a term to describe a person as there are no other ways to describe a person but mainly by their race or height.

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      • Posted by Easy. on

        Pretty easy, really. Inuit means people. Inuk means person. What does Qalunaat mean? Southerner? But not person? Not people?

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        • Posted by Allin on

          pretty sure, and I’m not a fluent speaker by any means, but it comes from qabluq meaning eyebrows and naaq meaning stomach. So basically, person with obvious brows and belly. Not the nicest term, and not something I prefer to be called, if we’re being asked (which it seems is the appropriate and respectful thing to do in this day and age).

    • Posted by Equity for Thee, but Not for Me on

      In this world that we live in now only White people can be racist, bigoted, or homophobic. Do try to keep up.

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    • Posted by Pua! on

      Poor, poor you. Snowflakes are so fragile.

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    • Posted by Juan Carlos Valdez on

      Often used in a derogatory sense.?

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  2. Posted by Bob Lee on

    Melt my frozen heart.

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  3. Posted by 867 on

    Poor judgment and in bad taste to make such a comment, but probably not racist. Sucks that we’ve evolved into a society where the media will label/cancel someone quickly without any facts. Glad the truth came out about this man. Sounds like a lesson learned, but also sounds like he was absolutely unjustly targeted by the woke mob. Everyone loves to call cops racist, but most of them are great community leaders. Of course, there are some bad apples, too, but this guy seems as genuine and honest as they come.

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  4. Posted by Righteous Wrongthinker on

    It’s a shame how hardworking, good people like Chris Hrnchiar are demonized by the media and our current culture. Shame on the people who make the decision to target good people like this man, and to keep repeatedly reminding us that they can make guys like this suffer, to try to scare others into remaining silent, even when participating in online discussions on their own time. Let those who have deemed themselves to be perfect, offer themselves up for media scrutiny and employer prosecution.

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    • Posted by Opening up on

      It’s a shame there’s so much racism out there, good news more people are calling them out now and better yet some racists are willing to admit they are wrong and willing to learn and educate themselves to become a betting person.

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  5. Posted by JOHN ELL on

    Good to read a very positive story Nunatsiaq. Alianait.

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  6. Posted by Umingmak on

    It takes strength to admit that you were wrong, but even more to work for and earn redemption. I do believe that the majority of off-hand racism (ie comments like this) come purely from a place of ignorance. Some, like this officer, are willing to be educated and open their minds, while others would prefer to live under a rock. This is a good man who has earned forgiveness.

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    • Posted by No Need to Apologize on

      You are right about the strength to admit it when you are wrong.

      You are, of course, completely wrong that his comment was racist.

      He has nothing to apologize for.

      In the spirit of ‘willing to be educated” I advise that you take this opportunity to educate yourself, reflect, and reduce the levels of bigotry that you show routinely show.

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  7. Posted by Ken on

    There is a lot of racism from European Canadians, some do not even know they are being racist for the most part, it’s a learnt thing that goes deep in our society and in our families.

    Like this man, he didn’t know he was being racist and just thought it was normal and ok, off the cuff comment, from the heart.

    With more education and bringing this out in the spotlight helps to highlight the racism and to learn it’s not ok, move forward and to treat and understand people better.

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