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Black activists across the Prairies are calling for defunding of police. Is anyone in power listening?

This story is part of the Black on the Prairies project, a collection of articles, personal essays, images and more, exploring the past, present and future of Black life in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Enter the Black On The Prairies project here.

black on the prairies

Calls for police reform and abolition howled through the Prairies like a fierce wind in 2020. 

As the rallies quieted, Black advocates began to draft recommendations for how police and community leaders could meaningfully address systemic racism and police violence in their own communities. 

The biggest call to action: defund the police.

Advocates are not asking police to do more with less money. Many are asking them to do less and let other, better-equipped mental health and social services agencies step in to handle the rest. They want money to be diverted from swelling police budgets to community-based organizations trying to stomp out the root causes of crime like poverty, housing insecurity and addictions.

Others are calling for the entire police institution to be dismantled.

Police services and politicians in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta have said they were listening, but advocates from Winnipeg to Calgary say change has been minimal at best. 

It’s not for lack of conversation. 

“We have been heard and the status quo remains. I believe that we have been heard because every report that I see, every piece of feedback says the things that we are saying and acknowledges them. However, nothing has changed,” said Calgarian Adora Nwofor.  

“This is not enough. The people who were suffering are still suffering.” 

The Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg police services all received budget increases for the 2021 year. 

adora nwofor
Adora Nwofor said changes are needed far beyond policing. She and many other advocates want police officers out of schools. (Leah Hennel Photography)

Nwofor, a comedian and anti-racism educator, took on the role of Black Lives Matter YYC president and kept a clear emphasis on defunding the police. 

The Calgary Police Service (CPS) actually left budget talks with more money than it had asked for. Police Chief Neufeld had said police would give up millions of dollars if it went toward programming that would lessen 911 calls.  City council instead decided to use its own reserve funds to study alternative call responses.

Nwofor said this missed the point.

“Our city council does not want to defund the police. We lost,” she said.

She said decisions like this invoke desperation and hopelessness.

“I’m really frustrated, I’m very angry and I’m so exhausted,” she said. “[They] can say, ‘Oh, we see that you are struggling and it’s awful and we don’t want that, but we ain’t gonna do s–t, we’re going to continue to do the same stuff to you and not give you the opportunity to fix it for yourself.’ That’s just manipulation. That’s just more white supremacy.” 

Too close to home 

Calls to defund the police roared after the death of George Floyd. A police officer was captured on video kneeling on the Black Minneapolis man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, crushing the life out of him. 

black lives matter winnipeg march to the human rights museum
Groups called for the defunding of Winnipeg Police at an anti police-brutality protest on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Floyd’s killing happened in the U.S., but violent incidents closer to home — Dalia Kafi, Machuar Madut, Evan Penner — linger in the minds of Black Prairie advocates as they reflect on why they do this work. 

Nwofor pointed to the case of Kafi, the Black woman who was injured when a Calgary police officer slammed her into the ground face-first while she was cuffed in 2017. A judge convicted Const. Alex Dunn in 2020, rejecting his “evasive and self-serving” evidence.

Saskatoon-based activist Nigel Hakeem thinks of Penner. Saskatoon police were called because Penner, who is from the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, had been using an apartment block’s garden hose to bathe and was acting “erratic.” Officers punched, Tasered and pepper-sprayed Penner.

Winnipeger Rhonda Thompson remembers how a Winnipeg police officer fatally shot Madut, a refugee with mental illness, in 2019. The police watchdog said no charges should be laid against the officer. Thompson said it feels like when it comes to the most violent incidents, police do not act responsibly.

“It’s hard to see something with your own eyes and know that something was wrong and never hear the people that did the wrong admit to the fact that they did it,” she said.

“Nobody is accountable for what has occurred, which means that nothing is going to change.”

Another police killing

Almost one year after Floyd’s death, another Black man was killed by a police officer in the same city while the trial for Derek Chauvin — the police officer charged with murdering Floyd — was underway. 

Daunte Wright, 20, was killed in a Minneapolis suburb. Thompson said it’s clear police are still reaching for weapons instead of de-escalation.

Nwofor said trauma weighs heavily on people as activists try to comprehend how this latest killing happened despite a concerted push for change.

She said the public outpouring of grief and anger from the Black community feels quieter right now.

“Dauntre Wright has been murdered. We know it’s for nothing,” Nwofor said.

In Regina, Tiro Mthembu is struck by what Wright’s aunt told reporters in the wake of her nephew’s death: the family wants accountability because there can’t be justice.

Mthembu said the experiences of police violence — street checks, wrongful arrests, relentless questioning, unwarranted traffic stops — do not simply disappear.

“There’s intergenerational trauma that is consistently happening to all of us,” he said. “When we say justice what we mean is accountability, because we’ll never get justice. There’s no justice for having your life taken. There’s no justice for being wrongfully arrested. You’ll carry that for the rest of your life.”

Protestors in New York City march down Fifth Avenue calling for police reform on June 10, 2020. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

Nwofor said she was recently stopped and questioned by police while walking down a Calgary street. She said she was minding her business, walking to an anti-racist demonstration that was counter-protesting anti-maskers in the city centre.

She said groups protesting COVID-19 restrictions in Calgary and across the Prairies have been growing increasingly racist and filled with hate-speech.

She noted how police officers at the demonstration faced out, toward the anti-racist counter-protestors, as if they were the threat instead of the people supporting hate speech and rallying against public health orders.

Nwofor said this shows police still don’t get it.

“It’s looking bleak.”

Reform must be led by community

Nwofor said reform must be led by the BIPOC community. 

“I keep telling [police and politicians], ‘You didn’t even know there was a problem —  how do you think you’re going to fix it?'” Nwofor said.

She said academics, community-based organizations and activists are willing to lead the work for change if they’re given a chance.

“Why is it that police will come into our homes, our communities, and change things, but we cannot do the same for them?” she said.

Tiny steps forward

Rhonda Thompson, an advocate against injustice and member of the Black History Manitoba Celebration Committee, said progress is slow in Winnipeg. 

“Words without action are meaningless,” she said. “We’ve seen too many times that this becomes a PR exercise.” 

There are small positive indicators. She said being invited to talk about police reform and allyship is a step that would have been unimaginable for her parents. 

“Their community was very small and the representation was nil,” she said. “They had trouble getting their voices heard. If they were discriminated against, nobody believed it.”

rhonda thompson
Rhonda Thompson is a Winnipeg advocate against injustice and member of the Black History Manitoba Celebration Committee. (Submitted by Rhonda Thompson)

The Police Accountability Coalition, which represents dozens of Winnipeg community organizations, presented to the Winnipeg Police Board in September. The coalition put forward a list of recommendations it said could lead to meaningful action on police violence and systemic racism toward Black and Indigenous people.

Thompson said there’s been no change, despite ongoing talks.

The movement to defund the police across the Prairies focuses on overt examples of police violence, but also presents cases for why police officers should be removed from schools, why police services don’t need money for more powerful weapons and why street checks are discriminatory.

Thompson said there is some hope regarding removing school resource officers (police) from schools.

“School divisions around the city have been willing to engage in the conversation of whether these programs do more harm than good and if the funds used for SRO’s could be put toward hiring mental health and wellness personnel instead.”

She said police are in a position of power within the community and need to take more initiative in change.

“They do bear a greater sense of responsibility in ensuring that their procedures and policies in place are beneficial to all.”

Nwofor said that as progress stalls at the official level, allies must push harder for reform. She called on businesses and politicians — especially those who spoke up in the summer — to once again call louder. Allies cannot be tired yet, because there has been no action, she said.

“You don’t change policy without changing people’s beliefs, ideas, morals,” Nwofor said. “It’s not about having the debate about whether this way to do it is good or not, because that keeps holding us back.”

demographics of employees within police services in manitoba and saskatchewan
Demographics of employees within police services in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. (CBC Graphics)

Broken system

Saskatoon activist and student Nigel Hakeem doesn’t believe police reform is possible, no matter how it’s tackled. 

“A system that inherently needs to be oppressive, is always going to be oppressive,” he said.

Hakeem helped organize — and spoke at — one of the city’s largest BLM rallies. Organizers called for defunding the police. Police were not invited.

In December, Saskatoon’s police commissioners approved a final 2021 operating budget of $104.2 million. It was $200,000 less than the police chief asked for, but still an increase of $4.6 million from the previous year.

“I’m disappointed,” Hakeem said. “This is kind of what I expected. No changes,”

nigel hakeem
Nigel Hakeem encourages people to join community organizations to foster grassroots change. (CBC)

Hakeem said there will come a time when people stop tolerating politicians and police services who use progressive phrases like Black Lives Matter, or take a performative knee at a rally, but don’t follow through.

A spokesperson for the Saskatoon Police Service said officers engaged with the community to learn about what reform means locally. They said there are plans for a new executive-level position responsible for inclusion and equity, a review of body-worn camera projects and an examination of policing alternatives or partnerships.

Hakeem said it’s up to regular people to make change happen.

“It’s up to us to have police watches. It’s up to us to build dual-power institutions, to help people, to do food drives, to get people housing.” 

black lives matter demonstration
Hundreds of people marched through downtown Saskatoon on June 13, 2020, calling for an end to police brutality and systematic racism in Canada. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

Pushing for change 

Regina was the last major Prairie city left to decide on its 2021 police budget. 

Members of the local Heritage Community Association (HCA) worked hard to amplify calls to defund the police before the budget came before council. 

Still, council granted the police service a $3.6-million increase — up 4.2 per cent from the year prior. 

City police Chief Evan Bray had suggested the police might cut mental health and youth programs if they didn’t get the funding. 

“It was a gut punch,” Board member Tiro Mthembu said. “But we know it’s a very formidable opponent, if you will. We’re advocating for humanity against an institution that lacks humanity.”

HCA has been trying to strengthen alternatives to policing. It has offered mental health first aid, naloxone kits, community training on de-escalation and a grant program to help racialized residents to work toward safer neighbourhoods. 

Mthembu and the HCA applauded the four councillors who voted against the police budget increase and said the conversations were positive, but that words without action are meaningless.

“It’s important to remember this movement isn’t just a year old. This call to disarm, it goes back to Gabriel Dumont. It goes back to Fred Hampton,” he said. “It ceases to end.” 

tiro mthembu
Tiro Mthembu says the call to defund the police is a ‘call for a more humane approach in dealing with poverty, homelessness, addictions and mental health.’ (Matt Howard/CBC)

Mthembu said diverse communities have not benefited from consistently increasing police budgets. He said more police officers does not increase safety for BIPOC people across the Prairies. 

He said money should go toward local organizations that focus on preventative measures and “treat [people] in a more humane manner.”

“We need to open up our hearts and minds to that direction of harmony,” he said. “It’s truly an abolitionist feminist movement based on hope, on something better than the carceral system we’re in.”

police shooting minnesota
Mayah Varnado, right, is embraced by Olivia Williams at a gathering in memory of Daunte Wright, 20, who was shot and killed by police in Minneapolis. (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune/The Associated Press)

Mthembu will continue to push for change.

“It’s still gotta be about education, sadly,” he said “I don’t know how many times we have to watch police violence until we finally reach people.”

He said the status quo means marginalized people in the community will continue to be criminalized, disrespected and harassed.

“Above all, we are talking about people dying in our community at the hands of a police force that is held unaccountable.”

Unlike Alberta and Manitoba, Saskatchewan does not have an independent police oversight body. Earlier this month, the Saskatchewan government announced $287,000 will be used to set up the Serious Incident Response Team in autumn, but despite calls for civilian-led oversight this new body will not be independent of government.

Across the Prairies, advocates say they will continue to push for change. Thompson, Nwofor and Mthembu think of the upcoming generation and their own children. 

“We’ve been fighting for freedom for many, many years. And I would just like to be able to rest at the end of the day and say we’ve done all that we can and out of the effort that some change has occurred,” Thompson said. “I hope that my children know that we fought for changes in their name.”

Mthembu specifically thinks of his daughter.

“I fear that she’s going to live in the same world that I’ve had to live,” he said. “Black people on the Prairies, all of us, we want to see our children live in a better world.”

tiro mthembu
Tiro Mthembu thinks of his daughter as he advocates for change. (Matt Howard/CBC News)

The Black on the Prairies project is supported by Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.

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