Across the Prairies, black demonstrators are pressing for the elimination of police aid. Is anybody in positions of authority listening?
On the Prairies, police reform pales in contrast to bold calls to action.
In 2020, proponents of police reform and abolition howled across the Prairies like a ferocious storm.
As the protests dwindled, Black activists started formulating proposals for how police and community leaders should meaningfully counter racial injustice and police brutality in their own neighborhoods.
The most urgent call to action: eliminate police funding.
Advocates are not pleading with police to do more with less funding. Many are pleading for them to do less and allowing other, more capable mental health and social support providers to take over. They want funds redirected from bloated police budgets to community-based organizations dedicated to eradicating crime's root causes, such as poverty, housing insecurity, and addiction.
Others advocate for the abolition of the whole police force.
Although police forces and lawmakers in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta have indicated they are listening, advocates from Winnipeg to Calgary report little progress.
This is not due to a dearth of discussion.
"We have been acknowledged, but the status quo has been maintained. I assume that we have been heard because every article that I see, every piece of input that I get, states and acknowledges the same things that we are saying. Nevertheless, nothing has changed "Adora Nwofor, a Calgarian, said.
"This is insufficient. The people who were in agony are now in agony."
The police forces in Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg have all requested budget increases for the fiscal year 2021.
Nwofor, a comedian and anti-racism educator, assumed the presidency of Black Lives Matter YYC and put a strong focus on police defunding.
The Calgary Police Service (CPS) ultimately walked away from budget negotiations with more funding than requested. Police Chief Neufeld previously said that police must forego millions of dollars in order to invest in programming that would reduce 911 calls. Rather than that, the city council chose to use its own reserve funds to investigate alternative call responses.
Nwofor claimed that this was incorrect.
"Our city council is opposed to police defunding. We were defeated "'She said.
She mentioned that such choices imply desperation and hopelessness.
"I'm extremely frustrated, furious, and tired," she said. "[They] might say, 'Oh, we see you're struggling and it's bad, and we don't want that, but we ain't going to do s—t; we're going to keep doing the same thing to you and not give you a chance to fix it for yourself.' That is pure deception. That is yet another manifestation of white supremacy."
Too near home
Following George Floyd's murder, calls to defund the police erupted. A police officer was caught on camera lying on the neck of the Black Minneapolis man for eight minutes and 46 seconds, crushing him to death.
Although Floyd's assassination occurred in the United States, violent events closer to home — Dalia Kafi, Machuar Madut, and Evan Penner — remain in the minds of Black Prairie activists as they consider why they do this work.
Nwofor cited the case of Kafi, a Black woman who was killed in 2017 when a Calgary police officer pushed her face-first into the ground as she was handcuffed. Const. Alex Dunn was convicted in 2020 after a judge rejected his "evasive and self-serving" testimony.
Nigel Hakeem, a Saskatoon protester, thinks of Penner. Saskatoon police were notified that Penner, a member of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, had been bathing with the garden hose from an apartment building and was behaving "erratically." Penner was punched, Tasered, and pepper sprayed by officers.
A native of Winnipeg Rhonda Thompson recalls how a Winnipeg police officer shot and killed Madut, a mentally ill refugee, in 2019. According to the police watchdog, no charges can be brought against the cop. Thompson said that he believes police should not behave responsibly in the most violent cases.
"It's difficult to see things through your own eyes and recognize that something was wrong but never hear the people who committed the wrong confess to it," she said.
"No one bears responsibility for what has happened, which means that nothing can change."
Another police homicide
Almost a year after Floyd's death, another Black man was killed by a police officer in the same neighborhood, while Derek Chauvin's trial for murdering Floyd was ongoing.
Daunte Wright, 20, was assassinated in a suburb of Minneapolis. Thompson said that it is apparent that police are already searching for guns rather than deescalating the situation.
Nwofor explained that trauma weighs heavily on activists as they attempt to make sense of how this latest killing occurred amid a concerted drive for reform.
She mentioned that the Black community's collective outpouring of sorrow and indignation is quieter at the moment.
"Dauntre Wright was assassinated. We are aware that it is in vain "As Nwofor said.
Tiro Mthembu in Regina is struck by what Wright's aunt told reporters following her nephew's death: the family seeks transparency because there can be no justice.
Mthembu asserted that police brutality encounters — street checks, wrongful arrests, relentless interrogation, and unjustified traffic stops — do not immediately vanish.
"There is intergenerational trauma that affects all," he said. "When we speak about justice, we are referring to transparency, since we will never obtain justice. There is no fairness in the taking of one's soul. There is no such thing as justification for an erroneous detention. That is something you will take with you for the rest of your life."
Nwofor reported that she was intercepted and questioned by police while walking down a Calgary street recently. She said she was minding her own business as she walked to an anti-racist rally in the city centre that was counter-protesting anti-maskers.
She said that protests in Calgary and across the Prairies against COVID-19 restrictions have become increasingly racist and loaded with hate speech.
She remarked on how police officers at the demonstration looked outward, against the anti-racist counter-protestors, as if they were the challenge, rather than the individuals who endorse hate speech and rally against public health orders.
According to Nwofor, this demonstrates that police still do not get it.
"The situation seems to be hopeless."
Nwofor said that the BIPOC group would take the lead on change.
"I constantly tell [police and politicians], 'You didn't even realize there was a problem — how do you think you're going to fix it?'" As Nwofor said.
She stated that if given the opportunity, scholars, community-based organizations, and activists are ready to lead the charge for change.
"How come the police can enter our homes and neighborhoods and change things, but we are unable to do the same for them?" she asked.
Small strides forward.
Rhonda Thompson, an advocate for social justice and a member of the Black History Manitoba Celebration Committee, explained that change in Winnipeg is slow.
"Words devoid of action have no sense," she wrote. "Too frequently, this has devolved into a public relations exercise."
There are some encouraging signs. She said that being asked to speak about police reform and allyship is a move that her parents could not have imagined.
"Their population was extremely small, and they had no representation," she said. "They struggled to get their voices heard. Nobody believed they were discriminated against."
In September, the Police Accountability Coalition made a presentation to the Winnipeg Police Board on behalf of hundreds of Winnipeg community groups. The coalition made a series of proposals it hoped would result in concrete change against police brutality and structural racism against Black and Indigenous people.
Thompson stated that amid ongoing negotiations, there has been no progress.
The campaign to defund the police across the Prairies focuses on blatant instances of police brutality, but also makes arguments about why police officers should be excluded from classrooms, why police departments do not need more funding for more effective guns, and why street checks are discriminatory.
Thompson said that there is some hope for school resource officers (police) to be removed from schools.
"School divisions in the city have been able to participate in a discussion about whether these services are more harmful than beneficial and whether funds allocated to SROs may be better spent on mental health and wellbeing staff."
She stated that police officers hold a position of authority within the community and should take a more proactive role in enacting change.
"They do bear a greater sense of responsibility for ensuring that the processes and policies they have in place benefit all."
Nwofor stated that as progress at the official level stalls, allies must intensify their call for change. She urged businesses and politicians — especially those who spoke out earlier this summer — to raise their voices once more. Allies cannot be exhausted yet, she said, because there has been no intervention.
"Law cannot be changed without affecting people's values, ideas, and morals," Nwofor said. "This is not about debating if this is the only way to do it or not, since that is what is holding us back."
System in disrepair.
Nigel Hakeem, a Saskatoon activist and student, believes police reform is impossible regardless of how it is approached.
"A system that is fundamentally oppressive will still be oppressive," he said.
Hakeem assisted in organizing — and spoke at — one of the largest BLM rallies in the region. Organizers demanded that the police be defunded. There was no invitation to the police.
Saskatoon's police commissioners approved a final operating budget of $104.2 million for 2021 in December. That was $200,000 less than the police chief requested, but a $4.6 million rise over the previous year.
"I am dissatisfied," Hakeem said. "This is very in line with my expectations. No modifications,"
Hakeem said that there will come a time when people will stop tolerating politicians and police officers who use political buzzwords such as Black Lives Matter or who take a performative knee at a rally but then do nothing.
According to a Saskatoon Police Service spokesperson, officers worked with the group to gain a better understanding of what change entails locally. They stated that they plan to create a new executive-level role dedicated to inclusion and diversity, conduct a study of body-worn camera programs, and investigate alternative policing models or partnerships.
Hakeem said that it is up to everyday people to effect change.
"It is up to us to maintain police presence. It is up to us to create dual-power agencies, to assist people, to conduct food drives, and to secure housing for people."
Advocating for reform.
Regina was the last big Prairie city to vote on the police budget for 2021.
Prior to the budget coming to council, members of the local Heritage Community Association (HCA) worked tirelessly to intensify demands to defund the police.
Nonetheless, council approved a $3.6 million raise for the police department — an increase of 4.2 percent from the previous year.
Chief Evan Bray of the city police department previously stated that if they did not receive grants, they would slash mental health and youth services.
"It was a gut punch," Tiro Mthembu, a Board member, said. "However, we are aware that it is a formidable adversary, if you will. We are defending civilization against an entity that is devoid of humanity."
HCA has been working to improve non-police alternatives. It has provided mental health first aid, naloxone kits, neighborhood de-escalation training, and a grant program to assist racialized residents in achieving safer neighbourhoods.
Mthembu and the HCA commended the four councillors who voted against the police budget increase, noting that while the talks were constructive, words without action are meaningless.
"It's important to keep in mind that this trend is not new. This appeal for disarmament dates all the way back to Gabriel Dumont. It dates all the way back to Fred Hampton "'He said. "It has come to an end."
Mthembu stated that consistently rising police budgets have not helped diverse communities. He asserted that increasing the number of police officers would not improve the protection of BIPOC citizens across the Prairies.
He stated that funds should be directed toward local organizations that promote preventative measures and "treat [people] more humanely."
"We must open our hearts and minds to the path of peace," he said. "It is genuinely an abolitionist feminist movement founded on hope, on something greater than the carceral culture in which we currently find ourselves."
Mthembu will continue to advocate for reform.
"Unfortunately, it always has to be about education," he said. "I'm not sure how many times we have to witness police brutality before we hit people."
He stated that maintaining the status quo would result in oppressed members of the group continuing to be criminalized, disrespected, and harassed.
"Above all, we are about people dying in our society at the hands of an unaccountable police force."
Saskatchewan, unlike Alberta and Manitoba, lacks an independent police oversight agency. The Saskatchewan government announced earlier this month that $287,000 would be used to establish the Serious Incident Response Team in autumn, but amid demands for civilian oversight, this new body will not be self-sufficient.
Advocates across the Prairies claim they will continue to fight for reform. Thompson, Nwofor, and Mthembu consider future generations as well as their own children.
"For many, many years, we have fought for liberty. And what I want is to be able to say at the end of the day that we've done all we can and that some progress has happened as a result of our efforts "Thompson remarked. "I hope my children understand that we struggled to get their names changed."
Mthembu is particularly concerned with his daughter.
"I worry that she will be forced to live in the same world as I have," he said. "All of us, black people on the Prairies, want to see our children grow up in a better country."