Finding Common Ground

By Kevin Masterman, Toronto Police Service Published: 4:03 p.m. June 8, 2017

Self-described “contrarian, revolutionary and shitdisturber” Cree Elder Vern Harper offered prayers and spoke at police headquarters as part of a celebration to celebrate indigenous culture in the country and strengthen partnerships with police.

A close up of a man
Cree Elder Vern Harper took part in the event, noting his pride in his people's defiance of efforts to eradicate their culture

The 85-year-old Cree elder recalled being forced into foster care with his twin brother at age 5, growing up in the slums of Regent Park. 

“The purpose of the residential schools and the foster homes was to de-feather us, to take our culture away from us,” said Harper. “I remember, as a five-year-old boy, my foster mother putting bar of soap in my mouth so I wouldn’t talk Cree.”

But Harper said indigenous people have survived and are growing stronger.

“We’re healing people and we’re still here and we’re not going anywhere,” he said. “I’m proud to be part of the native community.”

Harper, who served as a military policemen and a reserve police officer, spent years as an activist and counselled Native people in the justice system, said he believes there can be more positive change for his people.

“I wanted to be here today to support my community and I’ve seen Toronto Police building relationships over the years and it is much better than it was. But we have to keep working at it,” said Harper, who likes the police Aboriginal Liaison Officer program that sees officers work with the community in each Division. “For communities and families, we need good police officers.”

National Aboriginal Month was marked in the lobby of police headquarters on June 8 with drumming, prayers and speeches seeking truth, justice and reconciliation. It is hosted each year by the Aboriginal Peacekeeping Unit and the Aboriginal Consultative Committee – made up of community members who advise police on issues affecting the indigenous people of Toronto.

A man drumming a single drum with others as a woman in TPS uniform looks on
Toronto Council Fire drummers closing the ceremony at police headquarters

Deputy Chief Mike Federico, past ACC co-chair, said the indigenous community is navigating many issues in the country today. 

“I wanted to acknowledge that today’s event is perhaps more sombre and informative understanding the social context in which we exist, today, particularly in Canada where the indigenous people attempt to find truth and reconciliation,” Federico said. “You have our commitment that we want to do the best we can for the community we serve.”

He pointed to the Statement of Commitment and Guiding Principles adopted by the Toronto Police Services Board. Chair Andy Pringle said the Board remains committed to those principles in serving the community.

ACC co-chair Frances Sanderson, of Nishnawbe Homes, said there are new programs and officers making a difference in the community.

“The TPS (Toronto Police Service) is always there to support what we do and I’m grateful to the Aboriginal Liaison Officers who are bringing a whole new enthusiasm to our relationship,” Sanderson said. 

Jessica Wolfe, Senior Counsel of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, said there is a lot of history to overcome as police seek to improve the relationship with the Aboriginal community.

“In the history of policing Aboriginal people, there are feelings of mistrust,” said Wolfe, who is Anishinaabe. “That surrounds our history, where police forces were used to enforce conditions of the Indian Act and other legislation that were very hurtful and caused a lot of trauma. That underlying mistrust was carried through generations.”

She said indigenous women are disproportionately affected by violence – seven times more likely to fall victim to a violent death, according to Statistics Canada, and that there is a lot of work to be done to seek justice and learn the truth about the fate of indigenous women through the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. 

“What this means to me, as someone who was worked with street people or who have family histories of trauma, is that a lot of people are going to be in crisis and it’s going to be an important time for the police to engage and work together with the community,” said Wolfe. “Partnerships we have formed are extremely important.”

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, of the Serpent Lake First Nation, said we are not far removed in history from great injustices to the indigenous people but we are now moving toward truth and reconciliation.

He said Canada must recognize the troubled history as well as the role of the indigenous people in shaping the nations through the treaties forged before the nation was born. 

“Why is Canada accused of being a polite nation? It didn’t come from the British monarchy. That politeness actually came from the peace and friendship treaties. The peace and friendship treaties  and that extension of peace and friendship at the time of Aboriginal contact actually came from our people and our Creator,” he said. “There is a sacred obligation we have as indigenous people that we would share in these lands, share in its bounty and share in the decision-making and share in each other and create harmony and hope for our future generations.”

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