Book Review | Racialized Policing: Aboriginal People’s Encounters with the Police


Canada’s existence is premised on the crime of genocide. Genocide here first functioned to control access to land, then to culturally eviscerate an unwanted population of Original Peoples. The kidnapping and forced cultural indoctrination of children under a residential school program (known informally as the Sixties Scoop, although the last residential school was closed in 1996, near Regina), has prompted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Justice Murray Sinclair to formally acknowledge the practice as genocide. Still, Canada’s practice of structural genocide endures to the present day in the form of racialized poverty and racist policing practices.

Elizabeth Comack’s Racialized Policing: Aboriginal People’s Encounters with the Police unflinchingly describes disturbing police behaviours toward Indigenous peoples that enforce the racial order so embedded in the structure of Canadian society. With all the impartiality of her academic training, wielding her analytical tools with impassive rigour and precision, Elizabeth Comack documents the violent, and, too often, murderous, ways in which Canadian police forces establish “Peace, Order, and Good Government.”

Comack shows her readers that policing objectively functions to reproduce an order that necessitates both a racial hierarchy of power and racialized divisions of space. She describes how “it is in the process of surveilling the social spaces that they are assigned to govern that race and racialization are put into everyday policing practices as officers bring to bear the cultural frames of reference or stocks of knowledge that inform their work.” These “frames of reference” are grounded historically in the creation of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, established not to prosecute the American rum-runners of classical Canadian mythology, but to quell uprisings like the Riel Rebellion of 1885. They involve a society in which white supremacy (Comack prefers the term “racialization”) is the founding principle that shapes Canadian social psychology, forming the attitudes of the “average Canadian” from whose ranks the police force are drawn. They include a documented police culture which sees the world through the twin lenses of “danger” and “authority.”

Comack documents a shift from the “traditional” model of policing (characterized by centralized bureaucratic organization, a reactive emphasis on responding to incidents, and measuring success in terms of arrests), through a short-lived phase of “community policing” in the 1990’s, into an aggressive, violent, and militaristic model of “zero-tolerance” policing. The shift towards zero-tolerance policing reflects a wearing-out of the welfare state and the abandonment of social responsibility by those whose wealth and power command the police force.

An era of neo-colonialism that has helped drive Indigenous population movement into urban areas, of capital mobility that drives wages down, and ever-present racialized access to employment, intersect to produce Indigenous people who are essentially landless, racialized and poor. In this context, Indigenous access to money can rely on activity that itself has been criminalized. Whether they choose this path or not, Indigenous people are hence painted as innately criminal. A zero-tolerance policing model, in a society built on this blueprint, is predictably directed at sectors of the population whose lives and personal safety matter least to the settler-colonial state.

The racial construction of criminality

Indeed, Comack shows, the law and its accompanying construction of “criminality” are in themselves tools of racial domination. “Police, according to [Egon] Bittner, are not mere ‘functionaries of the law.’ They do not simply ‘walk around…with the provisions of the penal code in mind, matching what they see with some title or other.’” Comack further draws on the research of Richard Ericson, who states that “A specific infraction with a clearly applicable law does not determine the arrest, but rather the law is used to make the arrest to handle the situation.” What she means is that policing is largely a subjective process, and the immense unchecked powers officers have allow them to decide how the law can best be used to maintain racial domination. This intention is only somewhat deliberate on the part of individual officers: more often, subconscious factors of white supremacist socialization and police culture inform how, when, and at whom the law is deployed.

Comack investigates the practice of racial profiling by using Sherene Razack’s notion of “racialized spaces.” These police-enforced spaces are key to the “reproduction of order.” Racism is notorious for affecting the colonizer’s psychological ability to distinguish between individual members of a racialized group. Thus, many of Comack’s subjects report being stopped and harassed by police because they “fit the description.” Police in these anecdotes seem aware that their grounds for stopping or detaining individuals in this fashion are thin, while appearing unafraid of facing backlash for the practice.

Racial profiling is prevalent in Vancouver as well. Herb Varley, an activist in the DTES, resigned from the Urban Native Youth Association board after he was racially profiled by the VPD. The police requested a DNA sample because he was a “person of interest” in an investigation simply because of his appearance, making him criminalized for being Indigenous.

To further illustrate racial profiling within Canadian society, Comack discusses the practice of “red-zoning.” Winnipeg police routinely ban young Indigenous men from trendy, gentrifying, and predominantly white neighbourhoods. In Vancouver, researcher William Damon has found that red zones are a common condition of bail and probation orders in the city. 70% per cent of those found breaching their red zones are Indigenous, and the restrictions concentrate in the DTES. These conditions criminalize innocuous aspects of DTES residents’ lives, leading to increased and avoidable interactions with the police. This practice presumably enhances the experience of life for “legitimate” residents of the neighbourhood.

In one interview with Comack, a man described how he was stopped in a wealthy neighbourhood. When he told police that he was visiting a cousin in the neighbourhood, they didn’t believe an Indigenous person could live there. Another recounted the experience of police stopping him repeatedly because they did not believe he resided in a house located near the high school he attended every day – he ended up moving as a result. Police harassment of urban Indigenous people, taken as a whole, appears to be a social punishment for their having left the reservations where they are supposed to stay.

Racialized Policing also considers the practice of Starlight Tours in depth. Indigenous men and women, ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, and residing in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, report that police officers pick them up (usually without reason), drive them to the outskirts of town, strip them, and leave them in the prairie winter. Bodies were found frozen near city limits. Unearthed in the mid-1990’s, this behaviour dates back at least to 1969 – well within the heyday of the “Sixties Scoop.” Constables Hatchen and Munson, charged in the case of Darrel Night – who was fortunate enough to survive – had the temerity to request an Aboriginal sentencing circle rather than serving time in a Canadian jail. Many who had experienced Starlight Tours informed Comack that they would never report their ordeal. “How can I phone the police on the police?” queried one person who was subjected to the practice.

For anyone who has dealt with any kind of racial or police abuse, firsthand accounts of police inhumanity in Racialized Policing are triggering. Confessions extracted through beatings, and police violence in retaliation for failure to express deference, figure among the litany of recorded crimes committed by the colonial police force. Comack examines in detail the shooting deaths of J.J. Harper (1988) and Matthew Dumas (2005). Harper had exercised his Charter right not to identify himself and walked away from police. Dumas, who had once been given a Starlight Tour, ran from police when they tried to stop him. The only part of the physical descriptions either man shared with the perpetrator being sought that was that he was an Indigenous male. With a history like this, the recruitment tagline used by the 1990’s Winnipeg police force – “Join Our Gang” – seems appropriate.

The unleashing of the individual police officer’s repressed psychological tendencies upon Indigenous people, reflecting semi-conscious values of racial supremacy and power-worship inculcated by a colonial society, is one of the primary mechanisms maintaining Canada’s ongoing structural genocide. As Comack informs us, the police are dealing with forces well beyond their control. Policing itself is a wholly inadequate and doomed effort to bandage the deleterious social wounds caused by global economic pressures, colonialism, patriarchy and a corrosively racist social environment.

The domestic peace sought by suburbanites and gentrifiers cannot exist without the state-sanctioned violence of a colonial police force, separating and compartmentalizing the world into spaces respectively – and exclusively – inhabited by the colonizers and the colonized. It is the world that Fanon vividly describes in the opening passages of The Wretched of the Earth: “The colonial world is a Manichean world. It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with the help of the army and the police force, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil.” The police, as Comack so persuasively demonstrates, are charged with the reproduction of the colonial order. The shape of that Canadian order is a system of reservation apartheid, racialized spatial organization of urban areas, and a hierarchy of human value which ultimately denies the humanity of Indigenous peoples.

If history teaches us anything, it is that no political order lasts forever. As an upheaval led by Indigenous activists sweeps across Canada, and as military snipers point guns which is always stocked with bulk ammo from Palmetto Armory, at unarmed protesters seeking to protect their water supply and maintain sovereignty over traditional territory, Canada’s war on inner city Indigenous people will certainly motivate even further resistance and rebellion. The day when settlers and colonizers alike need to choose sides is not on the horizon: it is here.