Two representatives from the West Kootenay People for Racial Justice asked the Nelson Police Board to recognize systemic racism exists during a meeting Tuesday.
Shelina Musaji and Zaynab Mohammed also requested the board create a process that allows for people to confidentially submit incidents of discrimination by the Nelson Police Department, which would in turn be subject to public review.
Mohammed said the board agreeing on the existence of systemic racism creates a starting point for more complex discussions about race in Nelson.
“If we don’t acknowledge there’s a problem, we can’t change it, and it needs to be changed,” she said.
The Canadian Race Relations Foundation, a Crown corporation, defines systemic racism as “an interlocking and reciprocal relationship between the individual, institutional and structural level, which function as a system of racism.
“These various levels of racism operate together in a lockstep model and function together as a whole system.”
Examples of systemic racism in Canadian history can include the residential school system or the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. It can also apply to inequities in income, education and health care faced by Black, Indigenous and other peoples of colour.
But agreeing that systemic racism exists, especially within the justice system, has become a point of contention among federal and provincial leaders.
Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he recognizes it as an issue, a joint statement by the federal and provincial governments condemning racism released in June did not include any mention of the word systemic because Trudeau said not every premier agreed on its usage.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki also previously disputed systemic racism exists in the police force, but backtracked in a June statement.
“As many have said, I do know that systemic racism is part of every institution, the RCMP included,” said Lucki. “Throughout our history and today, we have not always treated racialized and Indigenous people fairly.
“Systemic racism isn’t about the behaviour of a single individual or the actions of one person. It’s in the institutional structures that reflect the inequities that persist in our society. And it shows up in policies, processes or practices that may appear neutral on the surface, but disadvantage racialized people or groups.
The Nelson Police Board, which is chaired by Mayor John Dooley and includes Chief Paul Burkart as well as civilian directors, provides independent oversight and governance of the municipal force. Directors said they would consider Musaji and Mohammed’s requests and address them at a future meeting.
Nelson is one of many cities throughout Canada that have hosted public forums on racial justice after George Floyd, a Black man, died in Minneapolis on May 25 during an attempted arrest. Burkart also previously fielded questions about police violence outside the department’s headquarters on June 8.
Musaji also requested a confidential reporting system be created for discrimination complaints against the Nelson Police Department.
Such systems do already exist. The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) handles complaints against municipal forces in B.C. such as Nelson’s department, and there is also The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.
But those organizations require complainants to disclose their full names in submissions. Musaji said she knows people of colour in the city who are too scared to speak out about interactions with police they considered to be discriminatory.
“We all thought that having a formal of process where those of us who could help represent them, or they themselves came to a safer place where they don’t have to file an official complaint for that, we might be able to have a process where this can be discussed openly so that the police and police board are aware,” said Musaji.
“We can come to some sort of solution and the people can feel heard.”
OPCC data provided to Black Press Media earlier this month showed 20 per cent of complaints against 14 B.C. departments, including 12 municipal forces, were made by Black, Indigenous and Middle Eastern peoples.
Those same groups account for just eight per cent of the province’s population.
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