Unravelling an Aboriginal Canadian’s distrust of cops

January 1, 2013

WINNIPEG, MB, Jan. 1, 2013/ Troy Media/ -I used to be scared of cops. It goes back to when I was about 11 years old.

Back in the 1980s, we lived on Charles Street in Winnipeg, in a big brick apartment block. We lived on the third floor, and I had aunties who lived on both the first and second floors.

My parents left me at home while they went grocery shopping so I didn’t think much about it when there was a knock on the door.

I opened it and realized I had a gun pointed right in my face. I don’t remember much of anything in great detail after that. I felt like screaming but I was too scared. I couldn’t even say anything.

The guys said they were the police, so I backed up and let go of the door. A bunch of police came inside the apartment.

The one guy pointing his gun at me put it away, and I was told to sit down. Then a police officer started asking me questions about my family, one of my aunts and one of her friends.

It took a while for me to start talking because I was still shocked about what was going on.

I guess the guy my aunt knew was suspected of robbing a bank and the police went looking for him at her place. They didn’t find what they wanted so they ended up at my door. I guess they thought he might have been hiding in our apartment.

While they searched around, one guy asked me lots questions over and over. They’d make me repeat stuff like they thought I was lying, and I kept getting more stressed.

After a while I started guessing at what they wanted me to say.

It seemed like hours but eventually my parents showed up and the interview was over.

Needless to say, the guy my aunt knew ended up getting arrested, but I didn’t have much to do with it. After all, I barely knew him.

Life returned to normal but I never forgot the experience.

A few years later, in 1988, aboriginal leader J.J. Harper, from Wasagamack, Manitoba, was shot and killed by a Winnipeg police constable. Our parents wouldn’t let us go out at night; worried we’d get shot, too.

Every time I’d see a police officer or a police car my heart would start thudding in my chest. I’d avoid looking at them, dealing with them, and even being near them.

I didn’t grow up to hate cops, but I see how it can happen.

If you are afraid of cops for too long – or have too many bad experiences with them – it can turn into anger, and then you hate cops.

This is why we still have aboriginal people who don’t like police officers. The mistrust often starts during childhood and the teen years, then continues into adulthood. You can see it even today in my North End neighbourhood and all the way to northern Manitoba.

Mistrust created a wall of silence that’s gone on for generations now and hurts both sides; even making it tough to solve crimes when nobody will talk to you.

But I never really thought much about my fear of police until I had a kid of my own.

Walking my son home from school one fall day – he was about four – I looked up and saw a police car in front of us and that old fear showed up. My son felt my grip on him tighten and I realized I had to do something about it.

I didn’t want my son to grow up with my old baggage.

I stopped avoiding police. I made a point of looking them in the eye when I met up with them. I learned to stop seeing them as “cops” and more like regular people in uniforms who happened to work as cops.

It helped a lot when I met aboriginal police officers, and other minority officers. Somehow I thought they didn’t see me as a bad person.

You can’t generalize and say all cops are bad, just like you can’t generalize and say all aboriginal people are bad.

I even learned more about my own family tree and took note of relatives who’d become police officers over the years. I started to see the good things they do in the community and at different events.

It was a gradual process, but eventually my fears wore off. Most importantly, I don’t think my son will ever feel that way.

Troy Media columnist Colleen Simard is an Anishinabe (Ojibway) and a writer and a mother of two. She is also a columnist for The Winnipeg Free Press.

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