ABORIGINAL JUSTICE: Justified use of force, part II–justified by fear


3 March 2011
ABORIGINAL JUSTICE: Justified use of force, part II–justified by fear

Helen Proulx and Byron Desbassige were both shot by police.  Byron died from his injuries, Proulx
suffered from a shattered pelvis.  None
of the police involved suffered from any injuries but the police charged Proulx,
who had been trying to commit suicide, with assault.  All of the police officers were considered justified in
their actions and not charged by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).  * (See ABORIGINAL JUSTICE: Justified
use of force, part I

According to Lois Kelly, a neighbour on the scene of Proulx’s shooting, the
police officer looked scared and lost her footing before firing shots at
Proulx.  During the inquest into
the shooting of Debassige, Constable John Tanner said he was afraid for his
life.  Proulx and Debassige were
both Indigenous.  I wonder if their
ethnicity contributed to the officers’ fear.  I remember years ago, when I was living in Calgary, stepping
into an elevator full of Indigenous men and women.  One of the men asked in a teasing manner if I was afraid to
be the only white person in the elevator.  I was surprised and offended at the time.  The question also made me uneasy—should
I be afraid?  I did not know how to respond and fifteen years later, I am
still troubled by the episode.

Does fear make the police more likely to use lethal force against Indigenous
civilians?  Witnesses and
neighbours who gathered immediately after Proulx was shot questioned why the
police officer used her gun.  “Why
didn’t you taser her?” they chanted. 
Kelly also noted that the police officer should not have had to shoot
her because she was so drunk.  Others
have argued that lethal force on Debassige was also unnecessary.  His mother, Jennifene Debassige, said,
“Byron wasn’t perfect.  But he
didn’t deserve to be shot for stealing some lemons…why couldn’t they have
called for back up? Why shoot him?”

Larry Hay, a Mohawk OPP police chief lost his job in 2006 for saying that there
was systemic racism in Canadian police forces: “It’s deep-seated racism,
and they will do all kinds of things to show that it isn’t so, but we know
better,” he said.  Racism has
been evident in a number of cases of police violence in Canada over the years,
one of the most well-publicized being racist remarks recorded from communications
between officers in September of 1996 at Ipperwash when acting Sgt.
Kenneth Deane of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) shot Dudley George, an
unarmed Indigenous activist.  In
another high profile case, a racist joke making light of shooting Indigenous
people circulated through the Winnipeg Police Force in March 1988 when
Constable Robert Cross shot and killed J.J. Harper, a sculptor and community
leader, mistaking him for an alleged car thief.

What is the way forward?  Amy McKenzie, organizer of a vigil for Proulx
said, “I understand many of you here tonight are angry about the situation with
Helen.  Tonight, let our voices be
heard not in anger but in prayer.  Together,
let’s ask the Creator for a peaceful resolution to this long-standing tension
between our police forces and ourselves, the Anishinaabe people in and around

How can Canadian police forces prevent further unnecessary shootings of Indigenous
people by their officers?  In the
final report from The Ipperwash Inquiry Commissioner Sidney Linden recommends
“that the OPP…tackle the issue of racism within its ranks directly and

*The SIU investigates cases where police
allegedly injure or kill civilians.

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