As Indigenous groups push for reform of the ‘racist institution,’ a historic police shooting of a Gitanyow chief reveals the scope of police brutality

Content warning: This story details police violence towards Indigenous people. Please look after your spirit and read with care.

In 1888, a police constable shot and killed a high-ranking Gitanyow chief during an attempted arrest. The act, which was never resolved through Gitxsan law, or justified in a colonial court, has permanently altered relations between the Gitxsan, the RCMP and the province.

More than 130 years later, the same problem continues to leave a stain on First Nations in northwestern “B.C.” and across “Canada,” as the communities of Dale Culver, Jared Lowdnes and others demand justice for the police involvement in their loved one’s deaths.

The Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs have released a list of calls to action, including demanding a full public inquiry into the RCMP’s role in the deaths of Indigenous peoples. The group joins many longstanding calls for police reform across the country.

“Policing in Canada needs a fundamental overhaul of the entire racist institution,” said Joel Starlund/Sk’a’nism Tsa ‘Win’Giit, the executive director of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, in a statement earlier this week.

“Small incremental changes are not enough. When officers are recommended for charges, they must go to court and face the consequences of their actions.”

A history of violence

It was June 16, 1888, when constable Daniel Green killed Gitanyow Chief Kamalmuk by a gunshot through the back of his chest, according to historic records. Conflicted accounts say he was either running away from police, possibly armed, or had stopped and sat down before being shot from behind.

Kamalmuk was one of the head chiefs among Gitxsan people, who at the time, made up the overwhelming majority of the population in the upper Skeena region and followed the Gitxsan system of laws and sanctions. These rules established the basis for social order and the resolution of conflicts.

In the lead up to Kamalmuk’s death, a series of events — a measles outbreak, suspected betrayals — had taken place resulting in the death of Kamalmuk’s children and a Gitxsan man named Neatsqua, killed by Kamalmuk.

While the matter was being resolved through traditional Gitxsan law and customs, news spilled to the provincial government in “Victoria,” who sent police officers to arrest Kamalmuk for the killing. The force was then known as the North-West Mounted Police, established in 1873 to stake “Canada’s” claim to the territories. In 1920, the agency expanded their duties countrywide, rebranding as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

When two more officers arrived three days after Kamalmuk’s shooting, they requested his corpse be unwrapped from its “bolt of cotton” for observation, while “convincing the people that constable Green would be held responsible for the deed,” said one of the officers in an account published by the Victoria Daily Times. The village “became much pacified,” said the officer, with the idea that justice would be served.

Kamalmuk’s relatives requested xsiisxw (compensation) of $1,000, a man in place of the man killed, and the gun that had done the killing, according to a report, but no such compensation, or any other form of justice, was delivered.

This event, and the breaches of trust and extreme tension that followed, triggered what became widely known as the Skeena “uprising” of 1888. Large numbers of RCMP were deployed to the region in an attempt to enforce colonial law through displays of military prowess.

“I don’t want to call it an ‘uprising,’” said Starlund in a phone interview. “It was the defending of the territories and the defending of our laws, and the defending of who we are.”

Following the “uprising,” Gitxsan people were resistant to any non-Indigenous person entering their territory, said Starland.

“That murder really set the tone early on for the relationship between us and the Crown,” he said.

When “British Columbia” and “Canada” sent surveyors to establish a restrictive reserve for the Gitanyow people, in frustration, they confiscated materials from the surveyors and put them on trial within Gitanyow law and customs, “and that really upset the Crown,” said Starlund.

What followed exacerbated tensions even further. The police were sent in, arrested a number of Gitanyow chiefs, sent them to Oakalla prison, and established a reserve about twenty kilometres north of Kitwanga.

“And to this day, we call our reserve ‘Oakalla prison reserve,’” said Starlund.

“You can see how things have unfolded, that these issues with RCMP just continue to echo throughout history, right up until today.”

Dale Culver, Everett Patrick, Jared Lowndes

On July 18, 2017, Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en man Dale Culver was riding his bike in “Prince George” when he was chased and forcefully brought to the ground by an RCMP officer. According to the BC Prosecution Service (BCPS), the officer called in backup and Culver was surrounded by police, pepper sprayed, beaten, and finally arrested. Shortly after, he collapsed and died.

On April 12, 2020, Lake Babine man Everett Patrick was pulled to the ground and struck in the head by police during an arrest. After a hospital visit, Patrick was taken to a police cell at the “Prince George” RCMP detachment. According to the BCPS, Patrick fell multiple times in his cell, but wasn’t reported to be in medical distress until hours later, when he was finally taken back to hospital. Eight days later, he died from what a pathologist said was a brain haemorrhage caused by blunt force injury.

On July 8, 2021, Wet’suwet’en man Jared Lowndes was shot dead by police in a parking lot in “Campbell River,” following an altercation with RCMP, who let a police service dog climb through the drivers’-side window of his car, according to BCPS. There was a warrant out for his arrest at the time.

In all three cases, the BC Independent Investigations Office (IIO) found “reasonable grounds” that RCMP officers may have committed multiple offences related to use of force, but charges were not approved in any of the cases by the BCPS. The prosecution service has given various reasons why, including the evidence not meeting the charge assessment standard and, in the Culver case, a new pathology report with different results. However, the loved ones of those lost are left wondering whether justice is possible through the colonial legal system.

Ron MacDonald, who recently retired as chief civilian director of the IIO, is filing a report requesting “B.C.” attorney general Niki Sharma, responsible for Crown prosecutors, conduct an investigation into the handing of IIO files by the BCPS.

Statistics collected by the IIO show a consistently low number of prosecutions in cases where the office has investigated officers’ actions, with recommended charges approved less than 50 per cent of the time over the past five years.

“It makes you question what threshold the Crown counsel is using to determine whether to go forward with charges or not,” said Culver’s cousin Debbie Pierre during a phone interview.

Perhaps more shocking, said MacDonald, is that of the 15 charges against police officers that made it to trial since 2012, none have resulted in a conviction. “Those are fairly stark numbers, and I believed this was something that ought to be looked at.”

“I’m always saying, ‘trust the system, trust the system’ but I’ve lost so much trust and faith,” said Pierre, also Gitxsan and operations manager for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs. “It doesn’t prove justice to me at all — everything is shut down before it even gets into the courthouse.”

In cases handled by the IIO, Indigenous people are severely overrepresented. Since 2020, data collected by the office shows Indigenous people represent between 18 to 30 per cent of cases that were investigated, despite making up only six per cent of the population in “British Columbia.”

In 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted that systemic racism exists in all institutions, including the RCMP. “This admission underscores that the problem is not isolated to individual ‘bad apples’, but is ingrained in the very fabric of these institutions that continue to harm Indigenous peoples and communities today,” said the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs in a written statement on June 3.

Among their calls to action, the Gitxsan leaders — with support from a number of organizations and Lowndes’s mother, Laura Holland — are requesting that the attorney general reconsider criminal proceedings against officers responsible for the deaths of Culver and Lowndes, while appointing an Indigenous lawyer to oversee proceedings.

The Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs are also demanding a full public inquiry into the RCMP’s role in the deaths of Indigenous peoples; the immediate removal of racist police officers; RCMP reform; transparent and consistent accountability from the BCPS in prosecuting police for criminal offences; and to publicize Ron MacDonald’s report upon submission to the attorney general.

According to MacDonald, who led the IIO for nearly seven years, there is a consistent frustration across the country with the rate of charge approval on files that are referred for prosecution. “It’s not just a B.C. issue,” he said.

Today, Indigenous people are more than 10 times more likely to be killed by police in “Canada” than non-Indigenous people, according to a CTV analysis.

“The message is clear,” said Starlund in a statement, “First Nations lives are disposable.”

IndigiNews reached out to the RCMP but did not receive a response before publication. The RCMP has acknowledged that systemic racism exists in the force and has recently announced initiatives meant to address this and to improve relationships with Indigenous people, including a recent race-based data collection project.

In an email to IndigiNews, attorney general Sharma expressed her condolences “to the family, friends and neighbours of Jared Lowndes, Dale Culver, Everett Patrick and all families who have lost loved ones and felt that they’ve not received justice.”

“People in British Columbia need to have confidence in the justice system. We take the concerns from the First Nations Leadership Council very seriously, and I look forward to meeting with them to discuss this important issue,” she said.

“We know that, due to long-standing systemic racism, Indigenous Peoples in B.C. continue to be overrepresented in the criminal justice system and we are committed to addressing it wherever arises.”

According to Starlund, First Nations experience discriminatory treatment by RCMP in many day-to-day interactions. “Every single person I know has had some sort of encounter with the RCMP that is negative, based on racism.”

“I’m not going to bash all RCMP people, because I’m friends with some and just like everywhere else, there’s good people and bad people,” said Starlund, who believes change needs to be made at the recruitment level. “[The RCMP] seems to attract people who desire power and we need to do a better job of ensuring that the right people are selected and are responsible enough to listen to the IIO.”

‘All trust has been lost’

Along with the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, other Indigenous governments have spoken out on the issues of police violence and racism.

In a recent statement posted on Facebook, the Heiltsuk Hereditary Chiefs and Heiltsuk Tribal Council says “for years” they too have been asking for a review of the hiring, recruiting and vetting process of RCMP officers.

The statement demanded the immediate suspension and removal of an RCMP constable in the Bella Bella detachment after discovering racist social media posts on his Facebook account.

“These are connected to a much deeper pattern of colonial violence and systemic racism against Indigenous people. Our members are very angry and feel unsafe that Cst. Robinson is still on active duty in Bella Bella,” said Marilyn Slett, elected Chief of Heiltsuk Nation. “All trust has been lost.”

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council has also been pushing for police reform following the police shootings of two young Tla-o-quiaht members, Julian Jones and Chantel Moore, within a nine-month span. The involved officers were not charged in either of their deaths.

According to the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), there have been 379 police-related deaths in “British Columbia” since Culver’s passing in 2017.

After the death of her cousin, Pierre said she became “overwhelmed” with messages from families across “British Columbia” reaching out to express their own distrust, and sharing stories about family members that have been harmed by RCMP. “Just multiple families whose lives have been permanently altered and devastated by the conduct of policing.”

Established in 2012, the IIO was formed in response to the need for independent police oversight, as a result of recommendations brought to the attorney general by Justice Braidwood in 2010, who, in the Robert Dziekanski inquiry, also argued that cases shouldn’t be handled by members of the BCPS because of “pivotal concerns about conflict of interest, public distrust, and an undermining of public confidence in the police and in our justice system.”

Though an independent police oversight office was formed — the IIO — the BCPS still has a prominent place at the table.

“I think that’s something else that needs to change,” said MacDonald. “Crown prosecutors work with police every day and so there is at least the appearance of conflict.”

MacDonald admitted that for nearly seven years in office, he “attempted to deal with what I perceived to be issues with how our cases were being handled behind the scenes, through relationships, and so on,” but determined that he “was not successful.”

Since making public his intention to request an investigation be conducted by the attorney general, MacDonald says he’s received criticism from agencies, including police associations that say he shouldn’t be questioning how the Crown handles files.

“Canada is a country that promotes public discussion of important issues. And it’s a critically important issue, that we discuss whether oversight cases in this country are being properly handled by prosecutors.”

“If that requires someone to state that publicly, which is all I’ve done — I have not publicly said one way or the other whether I think they’re doing it badly or not — I’ve just said the numbers raised serious questions. So I’m very pleased that the attorney general has agreed to look into this.”

When asked how Sharma would proceed with the requests from the IIO and FNS, she told IndigiNews, “Government is committed to maintaining public confidence in the justice system and will be considering all options to consider whether changes are needed to this process. We are also committed to consulting directly with Indigenous Peoples and other impacted groups on any proposed changes to address this issue,” she said.

“Work is underway on Police Act reform and the province continues to develop and implement policing reform that is responsive to the diverse needs of all communities, and which fosters increased public trust in policing, particularly for Indigenous and racialized communities. This work includes a comprehensive review of the police oversight system in B.C. with anticipated changes to the current framework.”

Two of three officers involved in Culver’s death remain in court for allegations of obstruction of justice regarding “the deletion of video from a civilian phone.” Proceedings are set to continue in late June.

Read the original article by Amy Romer at IndigiNews.