Sulaimon Giwa: Police and community relations

September 2018

Sulaimon Giwa

by Dr. Sulaimon Giwa

The substance of Elie Labaky’s oped published in the Ottawa Citizen (If Police are to succeed, community must play an active rolepublished 24 July 2018), misses the point on how institutional racism and white supremacy operates to oppress Indigenous and racialized people in Ottawa and, indeed, across Canada. Mr. Labaky’s proposal—that Indigenous and racialized groups stop crying police racism and instead cooperate with the police in addressing such issues as guns and gang violence—relies on an old-fashioned idea: neoliberal market logic.

This logic is akin to the bootstrap myth, in which the poor and oppressed are told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, without regard for the social, political, economic, and cultural factors that create barriers to participatory parity.

By vilifying Indigenous and racialized groups and exhorting the goodness of police efforts, Mr. Labaky seeks to wrap silence around a systemic racism that continues to thrive. This can only fan the flames of division and anger that plague the relationship between the police and the communities they serve.

I agree with Mr. Labaky about the efforts being made by the police to address the strained relationship between them and Indigenous and racialized communities. Recently, over 200 people participated in an antiracism meeting held at City Hall, at which Chief Bordeleau was a panellist. Later, in a conversation with Mark Sutcliffe on 1310 News, the chief talked about the progress made since the police killing of Abdirahman Abdi. He noted the organization’s plans to increase community outreach and recruitment from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, to examine traffic stop data collection for change in demographics being stopped by the police, and to review the antiracial profiling policy.

To believe, as Mr. Labaky seems to argue, that such police initiatives emerged from a vacuum is at best hyperbolic and, at worst, racist. Such an idea neglects the efforts that went into getting the police to where they are today. Whatever progress and success the police might enjoy domestically or internationally for their work in this area, they do so on the backs and labour of Indigenous and racialized communities. Many of the current efforts being taken by the police have origins in recommendations Indigenous and racialized communities made a decade ago.

Police need the communities they serve. If citizens’ views of procedural justice are threatened, police risk having their legitimacy undermined.

Had the communities Mr. Labaky condemns been idle in the face of institutional racism and white supremacy, the “reasonable efforts” he enumerates the police having undertaken would not exist. It is important to get this point right.

Mr. Labaky has offered accounts of his participation in the police ride-along program to buttress his claim about the good work being done by the police rank-and-file. A better approach might be to contextualize marginalized communities’ accounts of oppression and work from this basis for social change.

It is no secret that the police have continued to work with Indigenous and racialized communities for a better relationship. These communities understand their shared responsibility for building healthy and prosperous communities, and any suggestion to the contrary is a gross misrepresentation of the fact. With the knowledge accumulated over the years, it is time for the police to act in good faith on the many recommendations before them. Whether they do or not, only time will tell.


About the writer

Dr. Giwa is an Assistant Professor in social work at Memorial University of Newfoundland.  He had previously worked at the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization as case manager for Time for Change, a gang exit strategy, and at Waseskun Healing Centre as a community parole officer.


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