A screengrab of the front page of a proposed class action suit filed in federal court by the Nasogaluak family in December 2018.
A lawyer says a proposed $600-million class action lawsuit alleging RCMP discrimination against Indigenous people in the North will likely gain at least 1,000 members.
Steven Cooper – of Cooper Regel, one of the firms behind the proposed action – said about 50 people have reached out as potential class members so far.
That includes representatives in Hay River and Tuktoyaktuk in the NWT and Gjoa Haven in Nunavut. Representative plaintiffs act on behalf of other class members and work with lawyers to ensure their interests are represented and pursued.
All of the potential members have shared stories claiming harassment and inappropriate and excessive use of force at the hands of RCMP “simply because they’re not white,” Cooper said.
“You’ve got kids walking down the street in a small northern community being basically harassed, ultimately arrested for nothing other than doing what they’re legally entitled to do,” he said.
“Can you imagine walking down the street, not doing anything wrong – maybe you’ve had a beer, maybe you haven’t, maybe you stumbled, maybe you didn’t – but just going about your business and then being harassed by the RCMP?”
Cooper Regel and Koskie Minsky LLP launched the proposed class action against the Attorney General of Canada in December 2018, claiming negligence, discrimination, and a violation of Charter rights and freedoms.
Cooper said the lawsuit is currently in the pre-certification stage. By the end of June, lawyers involved will be cross-examining affidavits.
Joe David Nasogaluak, a teen in Tuktoyaktuk, is the lead plaintiff. According to the statement of claim, Nasogaluak was 15 in November 2017 when he was stopped and questioned by RCMP while riding his snowmobile with others.
Officers allegedly pushed Nasogaluak to the ground without provocation, then beat, choked, punched, and tasered the teen, and called him a “stupid f***ing Native” and a “Native punk kid” before dragging him into an RCMP vehicle.
RCMP told CBC North in 2017 they were investigating the incident but claimed a taser was never used.
The allegations outlined in the claim have not been proven in court.
Cooper said growing up in the North and practising law as a criminal defence lawyer for eight years, he witnessed and heard similar stories. He moved to the NWT when he was eight years old, in 1971, and left in 1998.
Cooper said it’s not that these issues are getting worse, but that more incidents are being recorded and brought to the public’s attention.
He pointed to an incident in Kinngait, Nunavut, caught on film earlier this month. The video shows an apparently intoxicated man being knocked to the ground by the open door of an RCMP truck before five officers arrest the man. That incident is under investigation.
‘Class actions like this are about systems’
“The RCMP, a storied institution, has been flawed in its manifestation for many years, probably from its outset,” Cooper said.
These cases point to a pattern of systemic racism, he said, and the class action can help hold the RCMP accountable and force the institution to reform.
“Class actions are rarely about individuals. Class actions like this are about systems,” Cooper said.
“This isn’t a claim saying every RCMP officer is bad or even the majority, but rather they’re operating in a system which is bad, which tolerates and in some cases even encourages bad behaviour.”
Cooper noted this claim focuses on the North as RCMP are the only policing authority in the territories. While RCMP also operate in the provinces, those jurisdictions have provincial and municipal police forces. Cooper expects to expand the claim to the south in future.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki issued a statement last week agreeing that systemic racism exists among her employees.
“We now have the opportunity to lead positive change on this critical issue,” Lucki said in that statement.
“It is time to double down on these efforts – there is so much more to do. There is no one answer, no single solution, no one approach.”
At a news conference in Yellowknife on Friday, Chief Superintendent Jamie Zettler – who leads NWT RCMP – echoed Lucki’s observation that racism is part of every institution, RCMP included. However, he stopped short of stating systemic racism existed in the RCMP.
The RCMP commissioner and prime minister recently acknowledged systemic racism in the RCMP. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Zettler claimed the “overwhelming” majority of interactions between RCMP officers and community members in the NWT have been positive, but added there will be cases where “people feel that they have been mistreated.”
“Those are the ones that we need to understand and have another lens on,” he said.
“It is clear that we must continue to develop and advance those relationships. Racism and discrimination is not acceptable in society, or in policing.”
Zettler said RCMP in the NWT are “working to combat racism and discrimination” and have recruitment programs focused on northern Indigenous people, alongside anti-bias and community cultural orientation training.
He encouraged anyone with concerns about racism and discrimination in policing to bring them forward.
“As a Northwest Territories policing jurisdiction, we are committed to working to enhance trust between the RCMP and the communities we serve,” he said.
Those who believe they may be a class member are asked to contact Cooper Regel at 1-800-994-7477 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone calls may go to voicemail as staff are working remotely during the pandemic.