By Olivia Visser, Staff Writer
Content warning: mentions of police brutality and anti-Indigenous violence
Police shouldn’t take public stances on political issues, yet they do on a regular basis. Beyond displaying on-duty support for controversial symbols like the thin blue line, officers showcase their beliefs in the way they police different groups of people. The overwhelming disparity between their treatment of Trans Mountain Pipeline protesters and Freedom Convoy participants underlines a broader systemic problem with Canada’s policing.
In 2016, the Trudeau government approved the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMX) expansion, backtracking on its campaign promise to protect the environment and community land rights. Two years later, the BC Supreme Court granted an injunction preventing obstruction of TMX work in Burnaby. Since then, more than 248 people have been charged with contempt for demonstrating against the pipeline’s expansion.
Four members of the Indigenous youth warrior group, Braided Warriors, were violently arrested after a peaceful sit-in protest in February 2021. They gathered for a ceremony at BMO’s downtown Vancouver building, which hosts TMX insurer AIG. This was enough to prompt their forceful removal by “approximately 25 Vancouver Police Department officers.” Video footage shows police throwing one person to the ground and pulling another’s hair.
Official RCMP documents suggest violence isn’t the last resort in policing TMX protesters. In their notes from a strategy session for a militarized raid of Wet’suwet’en Nation lands, the RCMP requested “lethal overwatch,” which refers to an officer who is ready to use deadly force. Officers were told to use “as much violence towards the gate” as they want, referencing a roadblock led by Wet’suwet’en people. For Indigenous land protectors, police violence is a familiar reality.
Other, less peaceful protestors benefit from a more privileged experience with police. The so-called “Freedom Convoy” which occupied Ottawa this past winter is a prime example of how our police fail to provide fair and effective protection. At least 196 people were arrested by the end of the convoy, but they received favourable treatment when compared to Indigenous protesters.
The Ottawa Police Service’s Interim Chief Steve Bell said the truckers were warned “all week” they were going to be arrested, and even on the morning of the arrests “all unlawful protesters were given many, many opportunities to leave.” This came after nearly three weeks of horn blaring that plagued the city and required an injunction to stop. That’s to say nothing of the harassment, including threats and hate crimes, endured by Ottawa residents. Text messages from an affidavit reveal an Ottawa police officer even gave protesters parking advice ahead of time and offered to devise for them a “plan.”
The Freedom Convoy and Indigenous land protests have significant distinctions. There’s a big difference between protesting the corporate and colonial degradation of Indigenous land and aggressively occupying residential streets en-masse because you don’t want to get vaccinated. Beyond that, the clear contrast in policing tactics and attitudes reflects an anti-Indigenous bias that is not just harmful but dangerous.
There’s no denying the far-right ties held by many Freedom Convoy attendees. The fact that Ottawa police were so slow to publicly distance themselves from the participants within their ranks and take action against the convoy is alarming. Peaceful protests shouldn’t end in arrest, but Indigenous land protectors face this reality regularly despite causing a fraction of the disruption the Freedom Convoy generated.
This is a systemic issue, but it still requires awareness. It’s easy to be distracted by the spectacle of the Convoy and its obvious political implications, but we can’t let ourselves get sidetracked from working against Canada’s colonial policing history and its far-reaching consequences.