Content warning: This story contains details of police violence against Indigenous people. Please read with care.
This week, a funeral was held for a young Cree man. He was 40 years old and a father of five. His death, and the manner in which he died, has been a source of intense heartache for his family.
It’s also been a source of emotional pain for Indigenous people everywhere, who have seen too many loved ones die at the hands of police, or while in their “custody.”
We are angry at the continued brutalization of our people, who are still recovering from the effects of “Canada’s” genocidal policies.
The police forces in this country were designed specifically to remove Indigenous people from their land, so in some ways it makes sense that an agency created for that purpose would continue to criminalize us, century after century.
“Canada” was dreamed up specifically for white people, by Europeans who believed that non-Christians weren’t human: “This continent must belong to the white races,” declared former prime minister Mackenzie King in 1908.
Indians were seen by “Canada” as a problem to be removed then. And it seems that we still are now.
There is perhaps no province more rife with anti-Indigenous racism than Saskatchewan. It is here where Colten Boushie’s killer walked free after being acquitted by an all-white jury. It is here where the Saskatoon Police Service brought unconscious Indigenous men to the outskirts of Saskatoon in the middle of winter and left them, without appropriate clothing, to die — a practice known as “Starlight Tours”. It is here where the family of missing woman Ashley Morin has had to raise their own funds to hire a boat with sonar to search for their missing loved one because the North Battleford RCMP have refused to.
It is in this context of racially-charged discrimination and oppression that, on April 1, officers from Prince Albert Police Service tased, batoned and pepper-sprayed Boden Umpherville. They stopped a car under the pretence that it had been reported stolen, even though the registered owner was driving the vehicle and has reportedly stated that she did not report it stolen. Then, they beat a young man to the point of brain death. That young man, who had been on life support, died last week, surrounded by family, friends and other community members who loved him.
Chase holds the hand of friend Boden Umpherville in the hospital the day before Boden’s death. Photo submitted by Chase Sinclair
I spoke on the phone with Chase Sinclair, a close family friend of Boden’s who said he was like a brother to him. Before Boden died, Chase said, he was just launching his second act in life. After struggling as a Youth, he had entered a new era of community service and connection. He wanted to help kids make different choices than he had, and had begun public speaking to youth on his experience of gangs and substance use.
Boden wanted to help young people choose a different path than he had. He was interested in land-based healing and cultural connection. He wanted to learn his language, as so many of us do. He had been given another chance in life, and was making the most of it, but that opportunity was cut short. Meanwhile, the police who harm or kill Indigenous people are often given second chances — in fact, it’s rare for them to even face charges.
“[He] was working on changing and he was… using his story to create change,” said Sinclair. “And so they took out a leader. They took out a guy who could have changed people.”
Sinclair told me he worries that “there will be no justice served.”
Imagine the outrage if a group of Indigenous people had pulled a white passenger out of a vehicle and brutally attacked him? If that had happened, it’s likely all of them would be charged. So then, what defines a gang? From my perspective, a gang is pretty similar to a police service, without the sanction of the state.
Support from the state acts like an invisible force field around police, protecting them from the moral, legal and personal consequences of their actions that in any other context would unquestionably be the result of such action.
This is what we mean when we talk about systemic racism.
One way to recognize systemic racism, as opposed to personal bias, is to look at the data. The concept of race is not scientifically valid, but the treatment of a community based on their cultural identity and skin colour is scientifically observable by looking at the data.
When one community is as overrepresented in the carceral system as Indigenous people are, for example, this is proof of systemic oppression. We are overrepresented in the prison population because of the violence injected into our communities through the Indian Act, including the residential “school” system.
At the end of 2021, according to Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety, 77 per cent of adults in custody in Saskatchewan were Indigenous. This staggering number, while disturbing, is not surprising. Most people with Indigenous loved ones in Saskatchewan know at least a few people behind bars.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of five close family members who have been to prison. One of my younger cousins has been languishing in prison since he was 17. Young men in my father’s generation would sometimes purposely commit crimes in the fall so they could spend the winter in prison, where they were sure to have three meals a day and a bed to themselves, which was sometimes more than was available to them at home.
Where does healing begin? How do we get to hope from here? Is justice even possible?
If so, what does it look like? When are people allowed to change?
How do we ensure that Boden Umpherville’s life and his untimely death is not in vain? How do we ensure this doesn’t continue happening to First Nations people in “Canada”?
It should go without saying that Indigenous people deserve to live. As long as we continue to be targets of police forces across the country, however, we will continue to be disproportionately brutalized, killed and locked up. We want to know that our lives matter too, that our worth as human beings is upheld. I respect all life. I just wish the police did too.
Recently, I read about the funeral for two police officers who were killed in the line of duty in “Alberta.” Thousands of officers marched in procession to their funeral, with representatives from 45 police and first-responder agencies joining them in solidarity. In my opinion, everybody’s life is worth honouring like that.
I would like to see a solemn procession of hundreds of uniformed officers when an Indigenous woman’s body is found in a landfill, or when a man just beginning a new era of his life is beaten so severely he ends up on life support.
In Boden’s case, the Saskatchewan Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) is currently investigating. Although the SIRT is led by civilians, there’s no information on their website of who the investigators are.
Their website states, “Indigenous representation is an important part of the SIRT investigative team. A First Nations or Métis community liaison works with the victim and/or their families during the investigation, acts as an adviser on community interactions and assists with investigations.”
However, it’s common practice for police oversight bodies to be composed of former police officers, thus eroding the public’s confidence in them. I hope SIRT understands that people across the world are watching this investigation closely.