Nunavut RCMP looking for lessons in Inuit history
RCMP plan to create mandatory course for new recruits to teach about residential schools, dog slaughter
Nunavut RCMP are arming themselves with an education on Inuit history in hopes of improving relations between Inuit and non-Inuit officers — and with the communities.
An instructor who developed a similar course in the South on First Nations history recently teamed up with Inuit elders and leaders to start researching the root causes of tension between RCMP and Inuit.
Jo Von Stein, a former philosophy professor in charge of developing the course, said the course doesn’t aim to teach officers about Inuit culture, but rather the history that influences how they feel about police.
Von Stein says a lot of officers recruited from the South know little about how RCMP are still resented for the police force’s role in carrying out government policies like forcing children into residential schools.
“Some officers coming North have some knowledge of the problems,” he said in an interview. “Some have a very limited knowledge. To be a good police officer, you should understand ‘why are they angry?'”
Von Stein and police organizers experienced the anger first-hand at their first meeting about the course with Inuit representatives and community constables at the Frobisher Inn on March 24.
Guests such as Nunavut’s commissioner, Peter Irniq, questioned why the meeting began without an interpreter and why more police brass weren’t attending. Another guest, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Jose Kusugak, also accused the police of trying to “steal intellectual property” by interviewing them about Inuit culture and reprinting their comments for course material.
“The first thing you should do if you want to show respect to elders, you should have an interpreter here first thing in the morning,” Irniq told the organizers. “We are Inuit and we’d like to speak our own language.”
Irniq also questioned why a non-Inuk was designing the course on Inuit history.
After the meeting, Von Stein said the initial clash between police organizers and Inuit guests mainly came from a misunderstanding about the nature of the course.
Von Stein said participants became more receptive after he emphasized that the course is aimed at compiling facts about events, particularly in the past decades, that affected Inuit relations with police.
“Inuit culture should be taught exclusively by Inuit and no one else,” he said after the meeting. “But this is not a course on culture. It is a course on perception.”
Corp. Wills Thomas, who organized the gathering, said he’s already developing a better understanding of tensions between Inuit and police. He said his perceptions of Inuit changed at the meeting after hearing the stories about police slaughtering the sled dogs on Baffin Island, and how police removed children from homes and brought them to residential schools.
Thomas said non-Inuit officers shouldn’t underestimate the influence of those recent events, when, in his words, police were seen as instruments of an uncaring, authoritative state, instead of human beings.
“I’ve seen it [those events] from a different set of eyes,” he said. “History to them is a lot more present in their way of living than it is for me. In our history, we’re looking at dates and times. They look at history as who it makes them today.
“These [events] are a lot more on the surface than I ever thought it was.”
Organizers hope to finish research for the course by the end of this summer, and begin training RCMP instructors by the fall. Although the course will focus on teaching a fact-based account of Inuit interaction with the RCMP, Von Stein wants the course to be taught strictly by Inuit officers, in order to answer questions about Inuit tradition that may come up in class.
While the project has barely begun, Thomas already has big plans for the course. First, he hopes to the make the course mandatory for all new recruits to Nunavut. Then, he hopes to make the course available in schools around the territory.
Ultimately, Thomas hopes the course will shift non-Inuit officers understanding of their Inuit colleagues and neighbours, and provide a better police service in Nunavut.
Thomas said officers across the country often arrive in aboriginal communities with a skewed idea about how residents are genetically predisposed to committing crime. He said this idea comes from looking at statistics showing disproportionately high crime rates in those communities.
“If I take away the stereotypes I had before, and replace them with an understanding of the effects of actual events that happened, we will have a better police force,” he said. “We’ll know where we are coming from… and from where we can move forward.”