Tyre Nichols’ killing sparks questions about police brutality in Canada

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The back of an animated protestor wearing a purple shirt holds up a sign that says “Tyre Nichols.” The background is light brown.
Defund the police.

Things aren’t swell north of the 49th parallel

In Memphis, a young Black man cried out for his mother as he was beaten to death by several police officers, sparking outrage across the globe.

Aiden McMartin, a founding member of the Restorative Justice Club, has done research on decolonizing policing. The fourth-year Human Justice student recalled the video of the Tyre Nichols murder and feeling “sick” while watching it.

Police chiefs across Canada also released statements condemning the brutality. Regina’s own Police Chief Evan Bray released a statement on Twitter saying the Memphis police officers “clearly did not follow the oath they took.” The police chief told Regina citizens the Regina Police Service (RPS) is committed to “transparency, accountability, and oversight.”

While this example of extreme police brutality occurred in the United States, McMartin explained reparations still needs to shown by Canada’s police forces as well.

“Canadian policing has a rough history as well,” said McMartin. “Especially with Indigenous communities in Canada and the RCMP.”

The week following the video release of Tyre Nichols death, Canada got its own news about a case involving a racially-motivated death. North of the border, it was Nicous D’Andre Spring, a 21-year-old Black man, who was illegally detained by Montreal authorities and died in detention. Similar to the case of Tyre Nichols, the video release has been delayed due to the government’s claim it is “highly disturbing.”

Still, the family calls for the video to be released. In a Montreal City News interview, Nicous D’Andre Spring’s sister is saying “We need justice for my brother.”

In the same week but on the opposite coast, charges were filed regarding the death of an Indigenous man in British Columbia named Dale Culver. He died in the back of a police cruiser in 2017 after he had trouble breathing and was delayed getting medical attention. On Feb 1, 2023, charges were laid against two officers for manslaughter and three officers for obstruction of justice.

In the six years between the event and the charges, four of the officers have still been on duty.

Hugh Braker, First Nations Summit political executive, said in a press release “Inevitably, people will draw analogies to the case of Black American Tyre Nichols’ death in the U.S.” Braker went on to demand “immediate changes in the police forces of Canada.”

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) in conjunction with the family of Dale Culver released a statement saying they wish to bring attention to an “urgent crisis of police violence that disproportionately targets Indigenous communities throughout BC and Canada.” Later in the press release, Dale’s aunt said “Too many have died in the hands of the RCMP.”

The most recent numbers about discrimination in policing were released by StatsCan in February 2022. It details that Indigenous people were more likely to have encounters with the police, and while most rated their encounters positively, they were less likely to do so than non-visible minorities.

The report included results of the 2020 General Social Survey which found about one in five Black and Indigenous people said they had little to no confidence in police compared to about one in ten people who are not a visible minority.  

One agency is trying to fill a gap in the reporting of problematic police encounters, known as the Alberta Police Misconduct Database. The database is the first of its kind in Canada, intended to keep a database of alleged police misconduct which it obtains from a variety of publicly available sources. It often goes as far as to name the officers involved, which those running the database hope will hold officers accountable. So far, it only covers Alberta, and launched in May 2022.

The database currently contains 403 potential misconduct incidents of police in Alberta between 1993 and 2022. Notably, the RCMP are not included in the database due to difficulties accessing information from the RCMP.

The database said one of the reasons it published the information is because “Police officers hold a great deal of power in our society, with no substantial public authority established to evaluate and resolve claims of misconduct against citizens.”

Other non-governmental agencies also keep track of police conduct, such as the Canadian Press, which released a tally of police shootings in Canada last month. They found in 2022 that police shootings had increased by nearly 25 per cent throughout 2021 to 87 shootings, resulting in 46 deaths. In 2021, there was also an increase in police shootings from 60 to 70. While the race of the victim could not always be identified, when it could be, people of colour were disproportionately represented, with Indigenous people making up 40 per cent of those shot by police. Accourding to 2021
Census data, Indigenous people only make up 5 per cent of Canada’s population.

When asked about what changes the Saskatchewan government is making in response to the increase in police shootings, a media representative of the provincial government pointed to a 2021 amendment to the police act, which came into force in January 2023. The changes create an “independent, civilian-led unit” which investigates serious incidents involving police officers.

McMartin said in some of his research he found community-led initiatives like the First Nation and Inuit Policing Program are good first steps at decolonizing policing. McMartin said the Indigenous-led program “made some very creative and community focused [changes] to their needs systems.”

Elizabeth Popowich, the manager of public information and strategic communication for the RPS, also responded to a request for comment on the increasing number of police shootings in Canada. “The RPS is not part of the increase identified by the Canadian Press.”

Detailing the history of police shootings in Regina, Popowich said the RSP officers have only been involved in a few fatal instances.

“There have been, thankfully, only two fatal police-involved shootings in Regina in the past 26 years,” said Popowich. One was in May 2019, and the other was in September 1998.”

 Popowich went on to say the low number of shootings is not an accident and that the RPS has been “very deliberate in our efforts to ensure that they do not become more common.”

According to Statista, which compiled data on civilians killed by police between 2017 and 2019 for some western countries, Canada has 9.8 civilians killed by police per 10 million residents. The US is far higher with 33.5 civilians killed per 10 million residents. However, countries like Australia and the Netherlands have fewer per capita deaths than Canada, and countries like Iceland and Norway had zero civilians killed by police during the timespan.

Claims of discrimination in policing are not a new problem. In July 2021, the House of Commons released a report titled Systemic Racism in Policing in Canada. In order to transform policing, the committee found “Witnesses […] emphasized the need for the collection of disaggregated race-based data.” 

The House of Commons report concludes racism is “pervasive” in Canadian policing and a fix requires “transformative national effort.”

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