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The impact of racial profiling on the Aboriginal community

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This section of the Report will focus specifically on what the Commission heard about racial profiling from members of Ontario’s Aboriginal Community. The term “Aboriginal” is determined by the federal government to include four sub groups:

  • “Status Indians” who are registered under the Indian Act[58];
  • “Non-status Indians”, not registered under the Act[59];
  • Métis people[60]; and
  • Inuit.

Aboriginal persons have a long history of documented economic, social and historical disadvantage in Canada. Approximately 20% of Canada's Aboriginal population is located in Ontario and the majority of these individuals live off reserve in urban areas. Human rights issues affecting Aboriginal persons are, therefore, real and present in Ontario and fall within provincial jurisdiction.

In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples[61] released its final report, one of the most extensive of its kind anywhere in the world. The reader is strongly urged to read this report as it contains a comprehensive history of disadvantage and systemic bias that has been generally recognized for many years. Many of these issues are evident both on and off reserve. Aboriginal persons in urban areas suffer from the cumulative and aggravated effects of poverty, lower education levels and discrimination.

Outreach to the Aboriginal community

Throughout the planning and conducting of the inquiry, the Commission had ongoing contact with Aboriginal persons and with community agencies having a significant involvement in serving Aboriginal people. As the Commission was designing the project, staff met with representatives of the community agencies who stressed the importance of directly contacting members of the community and that a separate report would be required because of the unique issues faced by this group of people. It was extremely important, they said, to aggressively reach out to the Aboriginal community as many members of that community do not have access to newspapers, radio and television, which were the main communication tools used to advertise the inquiry. As a result several community agencies worked with the Commission to identify persons who could make submissions.

Individuals contacting the Commission over the phone, by mail or through the Web site were asked to identify themselves by race, one of the options being “Aboriginal.” Additionally, separate community-based “private” meetings were held in Toronto and Brantford. In these meetings, individuals spoke privately with the Chief Commissioner and Commission staff.

The goal of this section is to highlight the words of the individuals who participated in the inquiry. Thus, there is a minimum of introduction and analysis with the words of the individuals being left to demonstrate the impact that these events had, and continue to have, on them when they occurred.

Why a separate section for the Aboriginal community?

The notion of “racial profiling” and “racism” as being rooted in a different dynamic for Aboriginal people from the other groups the Commission heard from during the inquiry is key to understanding the impact and correcting the situation. As indigenous peoples, Aboriginal peoples in Canada occupy different political, historical and individual realities from other Canadians and many told us that, if we understood those realities a little better, many of the systemic and individual practices they regularly encounter would cease.

Many members of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities object to being referred to as another “minority group” or “ethnic group.” Using this terminology when referring to Aboriginal peoples fails to appropriately respect what it means to be an indigenous person in Canada. Monique Lariviere of Montreal, Quebec explained it clearly and simply when she wrote to the Toronto Star: “[As] an aboriginal person and a member of the Cree nation, I belong to the Cree people and am not a member of a “minority”.[62] Characterizing Aboriginal people as “ethnic minorities” fails to take into account the very important fact that her “people have been here since time immemorial.”

Furthermore, the historical treatment of Aboriginal peoples, much like the treatment of indigenous peoples by colonialist governments all over the world, is unique to them in Canada. Two particular government programs were noted in several submissions as having a profound effect on how Aboriginal persons perceive racial profiling, how it impacts them and how they respond to that type of treatment. These programs were the residential school system and the wholesale apprehension and adoption of Aboriginal children into non-Aboriginal families (known as the “60s Scoop”). Both of these programs, while implemented for the protection of Aboriginal children, would ultimately have been the cause of the extinguishment of Aboriginal culture in Canada.

“And that's when it made me realize and that was the trigger I think of residential school, because in residential school, this is what happened to me. In fact, the whole thing that happened was like residential school.... And then on top of that, in the schools, when we ended up in trouble, we were forgotten. We were left to our own. There was nobody who was going to help us. So we were getting punished from the system, getting punished from our own, and it is just punishment. And that's what this was. That's how I felt it was. It was just like punishment all over again.”

“So I grew up in Toronto, and that was in the '50s when there weren't too many Native people, and I also grew up as a foster kid. So those two things I think affected my life and how I was treated in different situations.”

The Aboriginal experience of racial profiling

For members of the Aboriginal community, the experience of racial profiling has many significant differences from that of any other racialized community. Aboriginal people have their origins in North America. They have no other home. Many of the issues they face result from centuries of colonialism, much of which continues into the present. As a result, all too frequently, the impact of racial profiling further blocks them from full participation in the many benefits of Canada and Ontario. Furthermore, Aboriginal people find themselves at an intersection of racial, cultural, economic, educational and social disadvantage. That makes the experience entirely unique to them.

The Commission heard stories about a variety of situations in a wide variety of settings. Some people spoke about the intense humiliation they felt when dealt with negatively in plain view of others by storekeepers, security guards, transit employees and police. Others talked about the frustration they felt when trying to obtain some kind of service or fair treatment from government services, health care, etc.

An important observation is that many expressed very clearly the view that they were convinced that they were being treated differently because of their race and/or appearance. The following story came from an Aboriginal man who, during the early hours of the morning, had been out walking with his friend. After being asked for identification by police, he was accused of stealing the bicycle he had with him because he couldn’t produce a bill of sale. In his submission, he clearly felt that the police would not have treated other people, who were also walking in the same area at that time of the morning, in this manner. The type of treatment they received, he said, was because of the fact that they were Aboriginal.

The following statement, made by a nurse who was immediately terminated following allegations that she had injured a patient, makes a similar point:

“I feel that racial profiling exists in my workplace. I feel that had I been anything but Aboriginal, I would not have been accused at all.”

Frequently, the story tellers talked about the uselessness of making complaints to police, human rights commissions or other complaint mechanisms because they would not be taken seriously or, worse yet, would be treated like suspects.

“[A]fter a while people stop seeking help. They don't want to go near them. They don't want to have anything to do with them. Literally they just go, 'I have had enough of this. Like they won't hear me anyways, so I am not going’.”

The effects of racial profiling

The following quotation is a good example of the type of story that the Commission heard during the inquiry. It clearly expresses the unfairness that many participants felt at the treatment they received.

“There was three of us, and we decided we were going to walk to the park just over here and go and sit down on the park bench. And the park was full of people. ... It was warm, it was nice. And as I walked into the park, there was a policeman and a policewoman, and the policeman came up to greet us and he asked me for my ID. And I just said to him, ‘Is there a reason why you want my ID?’ And he said, ‘Well, we have to check everybody's ID.’ I don't know what he said, but I said, ‘Why don't you ask that woman over there? Have you asked that woman over there for her ID? ... If you give me a good reason to give you my ID, then you know, I could do that for you. But until you do that, I can't do that for you. ... Why didn't you ask those other women over there?’ He said, ‘Well, we are trying to establish good community relations’. That was his answer to me. And that was it.”

But many do not find it easy to speak up for themselves. In a recent article in the National Post[63] Roger Obonsawin, Chair of the Aboriginal Peoples Council of Toronto, was quoted as saying that the Aboriginal community approaches problems differently from other communities. “There’s a victim mentality that still exists very strongly within the Native community. You blame yourself and you don’t want to bring attention to yourself.”

Frequently, the issues Aboriginal people face are of an urgent nature and need an immediate solution. Thus, the payoff for initiating a complaint about a housing crisis will not be worth the effort of going through a bureaucratic complaint process.

“In our community people are so worried about the bread and butter issues. You know, they worry if they have shelter and food to eat and, if they got children, that their children have food to eat. Anything else is almost secondary to them or is not important.... They are ... just so focussed on survival issues....”

Compromising our future: The cost to our children

“He hated the cops after that and he was intimidated by them. Like he quit school after this. He didn't bother finishing, and this was like in June that this happened.” (Talking about a friend who had had an altercation with police where racial epithets were alleged to have been used.)

The future of Canadian society depends upon the future of our children. The experiences that young people have today greatly affect how they will deal with institutions, such as the criminal justice system, the education system, etc. as they enter their adult years. This is of particular significance where Aboriginal people are concerned, as children comprise such a considerable proportion of their population. The 2001 Canadian census revealed that Canada’s Aboriginal population is a young group and growing at a rate more quickly than the general population[64]. If this trend continues, Aboriginal people will make up a much greater proportion of Canada’s adult population in 10 to 20 years, thus underscoring the importance of ensuring that they maintain a positive relationship with our institutions.

A young man, injured during an arrest, talked about how this affected him during later years:

“After that, I grew up with a lot of hatred towards the cops, especially white cops. And I forgot to mention also that they used racial slurs against us as they were beating us against the fence.”

Concerns regarding the entire criminal justice system’s treatment of Aboriginal youth was a recurring theme in the submissions received by the Commission. The majority of the submissions received focussed on incidents with police and other criminal justice officials and there seemed to be a particular sensitivity to how police treat them.

It is well documented that Aboriginal peoples are vastly over-represented in the criminal justice system and that the treatment they receive, while there, is strikingly different from other racial groups.[65] While representing only 2.8 per cent of Canada's population, self-identified Aboriginal people represent approximately 17 per cent of the federal offender population. Adult Aboriginal persons are incarcerated more than 6 times the national rate. Aboriginal inmates waive their rights to a parole hearing more frequently than do other inmates. And parole is denied at a higher rate than for non-Aboriginal offenders.

Several Aboriginal parents told us about how this affects their concerns for their children, both about how they expect them to be treated now and after they grow up.

“It is really hard when I teach my kids to have respect and to do what is right, and then to get treated like that from the court system and put down, you know, they are not being given a fair chance.”

“Well, I am thankful that they [my children] don't really look Indian; they are half Jewish. ... I don't want my children to be hurt. You know, and if they are hurt less than me, that's good, you know. And I am proud of who I am, I am proud of being a Native person, but I also feel the pain that comes with that.”

When asked what he is going to teach his children in order to prepare them for success in the community that he has had to contend with, one parent summed it up in the following words.

“I am going to teach them how to ask for help, but I know cops will protect my children because they are children, but I was a child myself, I was 17 -- if I could show you a picture and show you how small I was. I don't think I could tell my kids to trust the cops fully, especially when they are Natives.... Sometimes I wonder like is my kid safe? That's what I still think about now. Like what if my kids are 17 and they go through what I went through; are they going to be able to handle that? Because me going through life, I already went through a lot of hard times so I was able to deal with it, but my kids, I know I am going to be there for my kids, I am always going to be there, but for that to happen to them, I know I am not going to let that happen because I am going to be there.”

Numerous studies and reports about the justice system have documented how it is underserving Canada’s Aboriginal population. Programs, like the Gladue Aboriginal People’s Court[66] in Toronto, have been instituted to remedy this. However, where such programs have been implemented, continued vigilance and improvement are needed. Another parent told the Commission about her discouragement as a result of some things she had seen and heard while she and her son were waiting to go into Gladue Court.

“We were sitting outside of old city hall. I was sitting here [with my friend]. ... [M]y lawyer ... was here and there was a detective sitting there. There [were] all these people waiting to go in. They wanted to observe Gladue Court, and [the prosecutor was] sitting there and ... she tells the detective, ‘I should let you know L. has an alibi.’ And she says, ‘Can I see the records? I need to see the criminal records.’ So the detective handed her my son's criminal record. She reads it and hands it back to him, and she says, ‘He is a real work of art. He is a piece of s***.’ That [was] outside the court hall, in front of a lot of people.”

The Commission heard how people lose faith in the system when they encounter this type of treatment, even more so when the program is specifically designed for them.

Mistrust of institutions

A young man told the Commission about how, as a youth, he was brutally arrested and received further injuries while in custody. He told the Commission about his lingering distrust of police even into his adulthood.

“Interviewer: So how do you feel when you see a police crusier coming by or police?

Response: I don’t really trust them, no.

Interviewer: You still have that.

Response: Like I know I can’t go to them for help because, I don’t know, I don’t see a trust there.”

Many of our public institutions depend on the good will and the trust of the community in order to be able to effectively carry out their mandate. Frequently, people of Aboriginal origin told the Commission that the negative treatment that they receive from various services discourages them from taking advantage of many of those services taken for granted by mainstream communities. Following are some of the comments about this that the Commission heard during the inquiry.

“People in my generation have done so much and tried so hard to break down racism and racial profiling. Just when you feel like it's doing some good and making a difference, someone like that comes along and makes you feel like the situation is helpless.”

“So yeah, your hatred grows more and more if you have been dealing with police in that way, I guess. I don't know. I know there are some good cops, but the majority are f****n a****s, so yeah. I have an intimate hatred with them.”

“There is nothing you can do, so live with it. After all they are the police, and people will believe them, before they believe anything you as an individual have to say.”

“Nor do my friends phone the police for anything because that would be trouble.”

The negativity which many people feel about how they will be treated leads them to avoid using public institutions, like the police, to get assistance when it is appropriate. Aboriginal (and other) communities consistently report that while they frequently feel the brunt of greater law-enforcement attention from the police, they also receive less peace-keeping and other types of assistance.

“But I just figured this will never go anywhere, you know. So often that is what happens with Aboriginal people making complaints. Nothing happens, and it is time something happened.... I know others that are constantly harassed because they are Aboriginal or their children are Aboriginal.”

Still, many people have not completely given up.

“[The anger] is still there, but I have gone through a lot of healing. I am not saying that all cops are bad, some are, some aren’t bad, some have a negative attitude.”

Changing behaviour: The social cost to the community

As a result of their experience, many of the people who told their story feel they have to be extremely vigilant and cautious to prevent repetitions of the treatment.

“I must be extra cautious, extra polite, extra calm.”

“It affects every person who lives in the city core. You're wary of where you live, that this type of incident could happen at any time. It's a fact of life of living in downtown Toronto.”

One or two painful experiences will have a powerful, lasting effect, especially if people perceive that it was something about them (their looks, their colour, their dress, etc.) that prompted a particular negative response.

“Since this incident I have been nervous of getting pulled over by the police in [my area], I pay extra careful attention to my speedometer and my driving, so as to not have any more run-ins with the [police in my area].”

The need to be “on your guard” and extra careful significantly detracts from a sense of safety and belonging. A homeless, Aboriginal man told the Commission about being assaulted by two police officers in plain view of other people, and how, as a result, he has changed his behaviour and how it has impacted his perception of himself.

“Yeah, I am more conscious of what I do. I am more conscious of what I have to say legally and whatever, what I have to -- I have to stay away from certain areas, you know, like especially alleyways. I get paranoid sometimes, unless I am with a couple of friends, [then] I’ll be okay. But if I am alone, I don't f*****n go -- I’ll hide to the max. That's how f****d up -- I guess I am f****d up, in a way, after that incident.”

It is the Commission’s position that people should not have to go to unusual extremes to prove their legitimate right to use public services such as public transit. An Aboriginal businessman told the Commission about how he was refused entry at a Toronto subway station because the date was smudged on his day pass. In addition to producing this pass, he was asked to show the receipt he had been given when he initially purchased it.

“Now, as a result of that I stapled the receipt -- or I carry it with me in
my wallet until the end of the day. If I am buying a metro pass, I carry
the receipt with me all month, just so that I can pull it out, but I 
shouldn't have to do that. And just the thought of it, just remembering
it has made me very angry again, and you know, we are not 
supposed to carry our anger like that.”

Unfortunately, the impact of all this is that many feel alienated and cannot comfortably participate in and take advantage of opportunities and services generally available to private citizens, despite the guarantees offered by the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Loss of dignity / self esteem

When one encounters a negative response in the normal course of their day, it can be surprising, shocking, or even devastating, depending on the circumstances. Police, security guards, teachers, social workers and other public officials are there to ensure our safety and security; however, when some of those who made submissions sought assistance, they found themselves treated as though they were a threat or that they had done something wrong.

“I was sick to my stomach, and most of all, felt a lot of hatred for myself because of who I am.”

One submission described a situation where a man who describes himself as a “dark-skinned Status Indian” was stopped by police while driving with his white wife in the Parkdale area of Toronto, an area known for prostitution and drugs. It did not appear to him that he had been stopped for any reason other than that he was driving at night in this particular area. Having established that the man and his wife had a legitimate reason for being there, the police officer then walked round their car and noting the front license plate was missing, pointed this out to him. When he replied he had been advised by a friend that a front plate was not required, the officer responded, “What, was he one of those Indian cops?” and wrote him a ticket. Subsequently, the man complained and the ticket was withdrawn. He describes his own and his wife’s thoughts and feelings:

“The constable assumed either my wife was a prostitute ... or that we were in Parkdale to buy drugs. When he could not find reasonable grounds to either arrest us or search our car, he came up with a totally bogus charge.... [I felt] angry, upset and powerless. There was no way I could defend us.... My wife continues to be upset and every time we are pulled over, she cannot control her anger.”

He continued by observing that such treatment “only makes the Police’s job harder. All police officers are perceived as racists and therefore, whatever they do is racist.”

Another submission came from a man who, with a group of his friends, had gone to a sports bar in Northern Ontario for some wings and a “couple of” beers. After one beer, the group (who were all Aboriginal) were told that it was their last drink and that they had to leave as soon as they were finished. They were told that they were likely to “get rowdy and start a fight sooner or later.”

“[I felt] angry, astonished, saddened and disheartened.”

He summed up his thoughts on racial profiling, stating that it is “[t]heir handicap, not mine.”

While some people are able to distance themselves from the experience and gain a perspective on it, others suffer more prolonged impact. The nurse, who was terminated after being accused of injuring a patient, told of her ongoing difficulties as a result of the incident.

“[When the racial profiling occurred] I felt violated and ashamed to be Aboriginal.... I am not the person I was before the allegations. I am angry all the time and feel depressed most of the time.”


“So we always think about the seven generations ahead of us, because they say when we go into the next world, when we finish our work, we are going to be looking back at our legacy, and the legacy I want for my children is to make sure that my moccasin tracks are well grounded with our culture, with our cultural teachings.”

Many participants expressed genuine hope and optimism regarding Canadian society’s potential to reduce the incidence of racial profiling and their own ability to overcome its effects. They saw benefit in the Commission opening the dialogue in a way that does not so much lay blame, but attempts to get the public to appreciate and understand what it feels like to experience such treatment.

They also had suggestions to offer that would counteract both the incidence of racial profiling and its effects. Two participants had the following to say about the importance of public education:

“And so it is just stereotyping that is still fairly prevalent. And I think education, it has a lot to do with educating people. It is a long process.”

“I think that has been one of the most important aspects I think of having something like this, is that there is someone who is listening, because one of the biggest problems that I know that I have had is having that sense of all of, you know, this experience that includes racism that most people, most Native people understand and yet there is a feeling that it just goes into the air and nobody hears about it, nobody knows about it.”

Another solution that was offered was that Aboriginal peoples should have more representation on police forces, security forces, etc.

“[I]f there is a way to have more Native cops out there or some kind of Native help. Like if Native kids are having trouble or something, can they call their own people and you know, the people will come there and take over.”

The suggestion that organizations and agencies sensitize their staff and develop culturally appropriate services was the theme of one of the participants’ remarks.

“I remember on one occasion a woman going into labour -- and things are getting better now in the labour rooms. But at that time just her traditions and her culture were not being respected and her wishes around childbirth. And of course, childbirth for First Nations people, for anybody, is really an amazing experience, a miracle is happening. And we have very specific things that we do at birth time, and those were not respected at that time, not even supported in any way. And I had to kind of do lots and lots of cross-cultural education to get them to understand that this is kind of like asking a Catholic not to do their rosaries during contractions, you know, it is the same kind of thing.... I would like to see the services that happen, the social services, the medical services, some of the legal systems to be a little bit more culturally aware of how to work with our people. I know many great strides have been made, but I really feel there needs to be a lot more.”

The following quotation best sums up the experience of the Commission and many of those who shared their stories:

“I want to speak very honestly. One of the things that I saw when I first came in here was everybody had their little walls up, you know, and gradually, though, your hearts start opening. And that's how we say, you know, in our culture, we have to speak with our hearts, then things will come over.

But also, too, one of the things that I would like to see is that there be -- when I was asking the question this morning, 'Well, what can I tell the Commission? What can I tell the Commission?' Well, they say before you can say anything to anybody, you have to walk in their tracks, in their moccasin tracks, you know.

As an Aboriginal teacher, it would be good if you could come into one of our sweat lodges and feel the Earth, feel Mother Earth, feel her energy, be with us in a sweat lodge, be with us in a ceremony, because that's who we are. We are the caretakers of Mother Earth. You know, we are the caretakers of the universe. And that's our responsibility here, Mother Earth.

So if you could just, you know, I guess educate, with your mind, body and spirit, you know, the spiritual part which the culture has, the spiritual backdrop, think holistically, then you will be able to catch the spirit of what our people are trying to do, you know.

These people here, the stories that you hear, my story, her story, everybody's story, you know, it talks about trying to “de-spirit” that person. A lot of us through residential schools have had that, you know. I am a very stubborn person, and they didn't do it. I mean, they kicked me out because I wouldn't bow down to another way, to their religion, because our way is a way of life, it is a way of life, and it is a religion.

So that's how I would see it. And how you catch on to the spirit is by taking part in the ceremonies, but also open your ears, your eyes and your heart.”

[58] In Canada, the Indian Act is responsible for the legal definition of who may be considered an "Indian", online: <>. “Status Indian" is applied to those individuals who have legal status under the Indian Act and whose names are recorded in the federal register provided by the Act. The Inuit are excluded from the application of the Act, although they are "Indians" under the definition of the term in the Constitution Act of 1982.
[59] The term "Non-status Indian" is applied to people who may be considered as "Indians" according to ethnic criteria, but who, for various reasons, are not entitled to registration under the Indian Act. In the past, Aboriginal persons lost their status when they obtained a university degree, when they volunteered to go to war (Aboriginal people were exempt from the draft), or when women married non-Aboriginals, or simply because they were in the woods on a hunting expedition when the federal registrar made a visit to their community.
[60] The term “Métis” is recognized in the Constitution Act, 1982 and has been clarified recently by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Powley. It does not encompass all individuals with mixed Indian and European heritage; rather, it refers to distinctive peoples who, in addition to their mixed ancestry, developed their own customs and recognizable group identity separate from their Indian or Inuit and European forbears. A Métis community is a group of Métis with a distinctive collective identity, living together in the same geographical area and sharing a common way of life.
[61] Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples, (Ottawa: Canada Communication Group – Publishing, October 1996) (Co-Chairs: R. Dussault & G. Erasmus), online: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada <>.
[62] Monique Lariviere, letter to the Toronto Star (26 July 2003).
[63] J. Cowan, “The quieter minority: Black groups are vocal in their charges of racial bias. Now the city’s natives want to be heard too.” National Post (30 November 2002).
[64] Statistics Canada, “Census of Population: Immigration, birthplace and birthplace of parents, citizenship, ethnic origin, visible minorities and Aboriginal peoples” The Daily (21 January 2003), online: Statistics Canada <>.
[65] Correctional Service of Canada, “Aboriginal Offenders” Backgrounder, online: Correctional Service of Canada <>.
[66] To help understand what Gladue Court is, one person at the meeting gave the following explanation:

“Are you familiar with what Gladue Court is? It is at old city hall, and it is a specialized court. It is called Gladue Aboriginal People's Court, and it was created after the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in R. v. Gladue which deals with sentencing of Aboriginal people. And to go to Gladue Court, you have to be Aboriginal, and it is for bail hearings and for sentencing. So all the judges are trained on Aboriginal issues and are supposed to have better training on the Gladue decision.”

For more information about the Gladue Aboriginal People’s Court see Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto’s Web site: <>.


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