A New Kind of Simakanis: Truth, Trust and Consequences on the Street

What happens when policing forces start to listen? Carissa Halton meets police officers and aboriginal people in Edmonton who are finding common ground
Dan Jones

Photographs: Jessica Fern Facette

It was not quite midnight as I drove home north on 95th Street from downtown Edmonton, past the glowing Burger Baron sign, the dark pawnshops, the queasy light from various convenience store windows and the ever-present drug trade hopping off and on bikes, out of backpacks, through car windows, into cupped hands. I craned to watch the action, but when I looked forward again I had to quickly stomp on the brake pedal. Just ahead of me on the road was a woman walking with a slight sidestep, as if she’d been riding a horse too long or had wet her pants. Her acid-wash skinny jeans glowed like moonbeams under the car headlights.

I’d come across walkers in the middle of the road here before. They often staggered or shouted, or weaved in the disoriented way of frat boys after midnight. This woman in platform shoes, however, walked straight on the centre line.

I rolled down my window. “Can I help?”

The salt tracks on her brown cheeks shone in the light of a truck behind us that would not pass. She glanced back, and when she met my gaze there was no fear, no relief—just something closer to confusion. A scar followed the curve of her eye until it disappeared into her shoulder-length black hair.

“I need to get away from those guys,” she said,gesturing back towards the truck. Before I could respond, she walked around the front of my vehicle to the passenger door.

This woman—possibly in danger, possibly high, and possibly about to rob me—was about to get into my car. Too many things were unfolding to process fully: the men behind, the woman in front, the ghosts of so many missing and murdered women all around. And inside my head was the voice of a former gang member I’d met. “I have a place,” she’d tell johns, directing them to a trap. Her words skipped like a record in my head. “I robbed people alone, too. I’d just pull a shank.”

When the woman in the acid-wash jeans reached out, I instinctively locked the door but rolled down the window. “I’m sorry, I don’t feel comfortable letting you in my car.”

Of course. Her face fell into resignation. Of course.

“Can I call someone?”

I turned on my hazard lights, which blinked far slower than my pulse. Her hand dropped to her side and she moved to the dark sidewalk. I followed her, slowly, while my mind raced. Why is that truck still behind me? How could I have left her out there?

The truck passed. I pulled up beside her again and asked if she wanted me to call the Crossroads outreach line.

She was slight and small, and her resolve had blocked her tears. “Just forget it.”

“Please, can I call anyone?”

“No one cares a fuck about me,” she said. Her voice was flat. She waved a limp arm at me. “Forget it.” She stopped and said more urgently: “Don’t call the cops.”

I had to pull out and ease around a couple of parked cars. I stopped further down the road and looked in my rear-view mirror. Her moonbeam legs raced on to the road towards a stopped truck. Boxy front grill and lights. They’d just gone around the block. The door opened and the truck’s cab swallowed her up. No one cares a fuck. The flatness of those words struck me only slightly harder than the insistence of the last thing she said to me: Don’t call the cops.

Lynn Jackson, Rachel Quinney and Bonnie Jack all disappeared from the streets of Edmonton and their bodies were eventually found dumped along nearby rural roads. Twenty-six sex-trade workers, many of them aboriginal, went missing or were murdered in Edmonton between 1988 and 2014. Inspector Dan Jones with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) knew many of them. He worked the 95th Street and 118th Avenue beat between 2000 and 2004, early in his career. Not only did he recognize every unflattering mugshot, he often knew the women’spartners, kids and parents, too.

This was the same beat Jones’s father had walked. He has photos of his dad lighting cigarettes for homeless people at a time when new community law-enforcement models transformed many police “forces” into police “services.” Becoming part of the streetscape—walking, biking, drinking coffee—was one element in a broader strategy. For officers, crisis response was secondary to building relationships.

But when it came to race issues, there were limits to what progressive community policing could do. Jones’s dad had told him about the “Indian List.” It was the early 1970s, and aboriginal people weren’t allowed to buy alcohol or go into bars. If someone somewhere worried an individual would break the law, their name was added to the list, and they could be arrested at any time, without cause.

There was no Indian List when Dan Jones walked the beat in the early aughts, but there were proportionally more aboriginal people—Cree and Inuit, Ojibwa and Blackfoot, who made their home in the inner city.

In 2013, Jones was assigned a lead role in the police department’s newly formed aboriginal relations unit. An aboriginal strategy was released in 2014, and that same year Edmonton hosted the final event in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which had been created in 2008 to document experiences of those affected by Indian residential schools. Edmonton’s mayor proclaimed 2014 to be the “Year of Reconciliation.” It was also a year in which the EPS faced backlash for promoting officer Mike Wasylyshen, the son of a former police chief, to sergeant. In 2002, Wasylyshen found 16-year-old Randy Fryingpan passed out in the back seat of a truck.He tasered Fryingpan six times in just over a minute. Fryingpan survived. The judge called it “cruel and unusual treatment.” Wasylyshen’s sentence was a 120-hour suspension and a decade of delayed promotion.

Many in the aboriginal community challenged the spirit of the promotion. Taz Bouchier, an aboriginal elder who worked at the Edmonton Remand Centre, protested at a police commission meeting. “For many people, a police uniform is a trigger and promoting Wasylyshen promotes mistrust,” she told reporters at the time. “He has a criminal history that is violent,” Bouchier said. “It makes it difficult for the aboriginal community to access services when they cannot have trust and a relationship.”

For many people, a police uniform is a trigger and promoting Wasylyshen promotes mistrust.

The goal of the EPS’s aboriginal strategy was to build the kind of trust Bouchier was talking about. In 2017, Edmonton will have the largest population of urban aboriginals in Canada. Two out of five already live below the poverty line. While aboriginal people represent almost a quarter of the national incarceration rate (this proportion only continues to grow), half of the inmates housed in Edmonton’s national maximum security facilities are aboriginal. In the city’s women’s institution, that number is closing in on two-thirds. Aboriginal people are twice as likely as non-aboriginals to be a victim of a violent assault, and they are seven times more likely to be murdered.

“Collaboration is key to success,” reads the strategy. “Crime prevention and public safety are most effective at the grassroots level, working side-by-side with the community.” But according to Jones, history and habit can stand in the way. It was often the role of the local RCMP officers to collect the children for residential schools. Authority figures such as Indian agents, social workers, police officers and parole officers, not to mention prison guards and security personnel, have not always helped the community. “For many aboriginals, simakanis are simakanis are simakanis,” Jones said to me, using the Cree word for law officer. (Simakanis or simakanisak traditionally translates more broadly to “protectors that surround the living area.”) “It’s our job,” he added, “to help people understand that we’re not all the same.”

No one cares a fuck. The words were with me the next day when I entered Boyle Street Community Services in the core of downtown Edmonton. Every day, smokers crowd around the sign announcing there is “no smoking closer than five metres.” When I visited, 10 cranes were at work hoisting steel and timber and glass. The frame of the controversial new arena grows there on Treaty 6 land. The cranes were reflected in the glass of the new Epcor building that cast a gentrifying shadow across the north side of the old CN tracks. There, the George Spady centre shelters “wet” clients, Hope Mission shelters “dry” clients, and a medley of drop-ins and food agencies are dotted through Chinatown and Little Italy.

Boyle Street serves the most desperate people in the city: chronically homeless, unmedicated, actively using. Eighty percent of the clientele are aboriginal—a distressingly disproportionate number in a city where aboriginals make up five percent of the population. I had come for a special pipe ceremony to honour International Women’s Day. I peeked into the room where many women sat in a circle on cushions borrowed from couches around the centre. My stomach sank; I had forgotten to ask about protocol. I wore no skirt and brought no tobacco. I quickly tied my neck scarf around my waist and hustled a smoke from an empathetic client. I entered and moved clockwise around the circle. I remembered this practice from a sign at the museum on “tipi etiquette.” I knew I could not be on my moon time, but I felt nervous. What else didn’t I know?

At the head of the circle sat Ruth Anne, a traditional Anishnawbe woman and a clinical therapist by training. She volunteers at the drop-in as a “big sister” two times a month, where she speaks to victims of assault. Many are aboriginal women who did not feel comfortable reporting their assaults to the police.

“Why wouldn’t the women go to the police?” I asked her later. I imagined shaming or further assault or a ‘drive and drop’ to the outskirts of town.

“The women worry about arrest, but usually the warrants are for unpaid jaywalking tickets or skipping the fare on a train,” she said. “Also, often they don’t understand police protocol.” Coffee and deep chats are her forté. Yet in this circle, she was nervous. She hadn’t led a pipe ceremony before.

When the flags, made from folded pieces of patterned cotton cloth, and a tobacco pouch arrived, Ruth Annebegan the ceremony. She lit the herbs piled in the centre of a shell and straightened small teacups and the bowl of saskatoons. Eventually, lighting the long wood and clay pipe, she prayed as the smoke rose. Between puffs to keep the bowl lit, she reminded us: our words were in the tobacco. As it burned, our words rose up, up, up to the Creator. In time, I passed Ruth Anne the “gifted”cigarette. She took it and asked what I hoped for.

I told her I hoped for bravery.

Culture support worker Gary Moostoos in downtown Edmonton.

Culture support worker Gary Moostoos in downtown Edmonton.

Gary Moostoos, a cultural support worker at Boyle Street, had heard many stories from his aboriginal clients about racism at City Centre Mall. The mall’s east entrance faces Churchill Square, Edmonton’s civic core. To the north of the square sits the pyramid-shaped City Hall and to its east is the art gallery, a twisting feat of architecture flanked by the city’s leading concert hall. Finally, to the south of the square is the main library. This is where the city’s 2,300 homeless often find themselves. There are few public washrooms downtown, so many use the facilities in the library or the mall. While security personnel at the library are generally respectful, Moostoos had been told by many aboriginal clients they’d been targeted by mall guards.

He wasn’t sure what to make of it all until one lunch hour last fall when he ordered noodles at the mall’s food court. What happened next made news around the world and fuelled public outrage. Moostoos had sat down with his lunch at a table in the food court when two security guards approached him. They wanted to see ID.

“Sorry, what?” he asked.

“Can we see your ID?”

“No, you may not. I am eating lunch.”

“You look like someone who is banned.”

He refused to show his ID because he was eating noodles. He was an aboriginal man eating noodles in the food court. He asked them if he could see their manager. A woman in a white shirt arrived with another man; now four people stood over him. Back-up arrived. Six, eight, 10 security personnel circled his table. Moostoos refused to show his ID; he was just eating noodles. When the guards put on black leather gloves, he knew what was coming. As many of his clients watched, he rode the escalator to the main floor accompanied by a half-dozen non-aboriginal security officers who marched him outside.

They banned him for six months.

Previously, he had gone to the mall just about every day and spent upwards of $600 a month there. But now he was banned—for eating noodles. And as he walked towards his apartment, which overlooks the river valley and Jasper Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, shock and humiliation set in. “Oh my God, this is how my people feel,” he thought. “This is an awful feeling. I can understand why they walk around with their heads down.” Moostoos has always been proud of hailing from the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, but as he made his way home he felt something break inside. He couldn’t stop crying.

When he texted his sister the picture of his ban notice, he didn’t expect she’d post it to Facebook. The next day, a friend called him to say that someone at CBC wanted to talk to him. He asked his boss at Boyle Street if it was appropriate for him to do the interview at work.

“Yes, you bring it here, because this is about our community,” the executive director said.

Reporters were lined up at his office door when Moostoos arrived at work. On Facebook he had received messages of encouragement from as far away as Chile and England.

He wasn’t sure he’d be able to get through the interview. In his office, he smudged. Pulling the sweet smoke to his heart, over his head, and around his body, he prayed,“Creator, I don’t know if you picked the right person to do this. I don’t think I’m strong enough.” He looked out the glass window of his office and saw his people sitting in the Boyle Street’s drop-in centre. When he opened the door, the first reporter said: “They picked on the wrong guy this time.”

“No,” he told the reporter. “I think they picked on the right guy. Come in.”

Inner City Edmonton

Security guards may be a less powerful kind of simakanis, but along with bylaw officers and police officers, they are part of the front end of a system that spans courtrooms and remand centres, jails and halfway houses, lawyers’ offices and parole-board tables. And this does not take into account the relatively recent history of the Indian agent overseeing all aspects of reserve life.

If you are born with the name Moostoos—or Cardinal or Whiskeyjack or Callihoo—no matter your education or career, your chances of meeting a simakanis are exponentially greater, for exponentially more serious things.

In Alberta, a kid with the name Moostoos is nine times more likely to go to jail than the same kid named Jones who claims no indigenous ancestry. If Moostoos moved to Saskatchewan, he would be 30 times more likely to go to jail.

While youthful demographics, lower employment and education rates all impact the higher proportion of aboriginal people in jail, they aren’t the only reasons for the inequality. Take an Albertan child named Moostoos and raise him alongside his adopted, non-aboriginal brother named Jones. Give both the same education and the same jobs. Then watch. Moostoos would still be five times more likely than his brother to spend time in jail. The Moostoos boy would more likely to get a traffic ticket. He would be more likely to get arrested. When arrested, he would be more likely to get convicted, and when convicted, he would receive a longer sentence than his adopted brother Jones would for the same crime. Moostoos would be less likely to get parole. When he finally got parole, he would face harsher probation terms than his brother. On finally gaining his freedom, Moostoos would be less likely to be offered a job and more likely to again see the inside of a police car, courtroom and jail cell. As victims, aboriginal Canadians are more likely to be sexually assaulted, murdered or robbed.

In the face of all this, the real Jones, Dan Jones, forges on. Perhaps because he believes in relationships. The system is made up of people and he believes people can change. He believes it because he has seen it.

Teresa Strong profile

Teresa Strong lured the 300-pound man into the apartment and locked the door behind them. She and the other members in her gang robbed people regularly, but this time, just over a decade up, it was about go terribly wrong.

The john had picked her up on a corner around 95th Street. Strong was blond and skinny and, despite being noticeably pregnant at the time, she rarely stood on the corner for long. As usual, she’d told the john she had a place. After she locked the door of the rundown apartment, her boyfriend stepped out from the bedroom.

“What are you doing with my wife?” he asked. Her man was a big guy, too, and climbing the ladder inEdmonton’s only aboriginal-based street gang. Other friends stepped out from rooms at the back of the apartment. They pushed the john around, took his wallet and saw he had no cash. “What were you going to pay her with?” Strong’s boyfriend asked.

They tied the john to a chair and took his bankcards to an ATM. They trekked back to the apartment empty handed. He’d given them the wrong pin. The beating was brutal. With the proper pin number, the group drained the man’s accounts: $3,000 would cover a hotel room and crack. They would eventually be caught and charged.

It wasn’t the most she had ever stolen from the “creeps” who picked her up. Once she made off with $30,000, but she’d take anything. Robbery was better than sex, though this particular robbery nearly killed a man. It was the beginning of the end of a love affair that nearly killed her. She took her first hoot of crack at the age of 15. It was like a multiple orgasm on repeat. Every heightened pulse was a waving call of sirens. For a time, she held it together working the high-track sex trade in Calgary. She was a teen and could make lots of cash—often $2,000 a shift. Her pimp bought her fur coats and a car.

Sex work required protection, so Strong turned to the gang after she moved to Edmonton as a 19-year-old. While she wasn’t aboriginal herself, members of aboriginal-based gangs can be inclusive, and Strong felt comfortable among them and had relationships with several of them (leading to children). And sometimes, when she was in the mood for reflecting, she’d fondly remember her early teenage years in Fort Chipewyan. When she ran away from her dad’s home in Fort McMurray, often she’d head to Fort Chip, where a Cree family had adopted her (in the traditional way). She babysat their kids, ate their food and found some solace from her family’s drinking and the step-moms she despised.

Dan Jones worked a similar beat to Strong’s at the time. “When you gonna smarten up, Teresa?” he’d ask.

“Fuck off,” she’d reply. “What business is it of yours?”

“Call me when you’re ready,” he always said, as he sauntered away.

A decade later, on the same avenue, I walked towards Strong’s home. It was filled with pictures of her kids, a comfortable sectional and aboriginal art. In the years since Strong worked those corners, the avenue has had millions of dollars of neighbourhood improvements. It has been widened, given new sidewalks and better lighting. A nail salon leases the building where the sex shop used to be. African Beauty Supplies does brisk business a couple bays away from a community-run arts café. The violin and mechanics shops have had facelifts, and at night, an inviting Nigerian restaurant lights up the street.

“Aren’t you triggered here?” I asked her, wondering how she could live so close to places where she once worked and used. Despite the changes to avenue, old friends still work the corners.

“I feel safe here,” she said as she made coffee. We moved to the living room. Her body relaxed deep into the folds of a leather rocking chair. She rubbed her eyes, tired from a late night playing charades with sober friends. Strong has been clean for 10 years, in part because Dan Jones believed in her.

“I was so mean to him, but I liked him,” Strong said. “On the street like that, you don’t have feelings for anybody. You can’t, because then you are weak.”

After the robbery gone wrong led to a five-year sentence in a federal jail, things began to change. Her father threatened to cut her from his will. A social worker told her she’d never have custody of her kids. Her boyfriend was beaten so badly in jail that he was left permanently disabled. The robbery also brought back buried memories: as a teenager, a boyfriend had tied her up, beaten her and told her she was going to die. It was a parallel scene to the robbery, only she was the one frozen by cutting ropes and delirious fear.

After 18 years of abusing drugs, herself and others, she decided she’d had enough.

“I’m done with this life,” she told Jones over the phone. He connected her to a wide variety of agencies who sup-ported her. She regained custody of two of her four kids. She had another child she never lost to the system. Today, Strong goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings every week. And she begins every day by smudging.

Last summer, Dan Jones asked her if she would speak at a patrol officer training session he had asked Roy and Judy Louis of the Samson Cree Nation to develop. The first sessions would train the 819 patrol officers in the EPS. Jones wanted Strong to share her experience in the aboriginal-based gangs and to talk about how she had changed her life so radically.

Strong agreed, reluctantly. She had never respected cops, except Jones. But she understood how important it was for the people still “out there,” those who traversed the melting streets yet to hit rock bottom. She shared her story with the officers, many of whom had arrested her. During one of 21 sessions, she stopped in the middle of a sentence and pointed to a man in the crowd of 30 or so officers. “I know you,” she said to the man.

Jones watched and braced himself for confrontation.

“You were the only one who arrested me who was nice to me,” Strong told the officer. She remembered his face, the gentle way he’d put on the handcuffs, the hot chocolate he gave her.

“Officers all start the job wanting to help,” Jones said to me later. “They believe everyone is good.” He wrote this at the top of an inverted pyramid he drew for me to illustrate the challenge police officers face in responding with compassion. “The Reverse Asshole Theory of Policing” is from Kevin Gilmartin’s book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. As officers meet people—both victims and perpetrators—over and over and over in their absolute worst moments, their hope in people falters.

Jones’s finger continued down the funnel, following a tragic, emotional trajectory. At some point, many cops begin to feel that only cops are good. Then they believe only their division is good. Then only their squad. Then just their partners. His finger came to rest at the bottom of the funnel: Me. An officer, utterly isolated.

“Just look at the number of suicides by first responders,” Jones said, referring to the impact of protective isolation. In January of 2015, five first responders killed themselves in Canada. On average, for every one cop that dies on the job, three kill themselves—a gap that Jones believes is widening. “We can have a lack of empathy that comes across, to protect us,” he said, “but that same lack of empathy takes away who we are. In the end, it kills us.

Judy and Roy Louis in Maskwacis, Alberta

Judy and Roy Louis in Maskwacis, Alberta

To reach Roy and Judy Louis’s home on the Samson Cree Nation, I trusted my GPS to get there. It failed me and I couldn’t help but take note of the symbolism of it all. “Find Maskwacis,” I said to the system, dutifully using my hands-free navigation system as I drove. While the technology made the effort to listen, its translation of even the most basic instructions made it clear it did not understand.

“Where would you like me to find it?”

“Open Navigation,” I began again.

“Where would you like to go?”

“To Maskwacis.”

“Where would you like me to find it?” I punched my index finger at the screen. I pulled over and talked to Siri on my phone instead.

“Find Maskwacis.”

“Destination found,” Siri confidently said. Three days drive to Massachusetts. I tried again, and she found me another destination, this time a much shorter journey: a one-day drive to Iowa. I resorted to expletives, and called home. My husband calmly gave me directions. America filled the car and my body relaxed. There was nothing to do but drive and sing with Simon and Garfunkel. “Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together / I’ve got some real estate here in my bag / So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs Wagner pies / And we walked off to look for America.”

I played the song again. I wondered if it was some kind of ironic treaty statement? I thought of Maskwacis, the town formerly known as Hobbema and shared by four Plains Cree nations: Samson, Ermineskin, Louis Bull and Montana. I drove past Highway 611; head north along it and you’d reach the townsite of Louis Bull Nation. When the gang wars terrorized these communities, shots were exchanged by rival gangs across that road. It happens less often now that the number of gangs has dropped from a high of 13 in 2008 to three in 2015.

Roy and Judy Louis remembered those days as a time of fear. In 2008, there were 365 shootings in six months. The community’s 16,000 people were terrified, and most had nothing to do with the violence. Like five-year-old Ethan Yellowbird, who was hit by a stray bullet as he slept in his bed. Or an 18-month girl who was shot while eating lunch at her grandfather’s table. She survived. Ethan Yellowbird did not.

I passed Samson’s more recent housing developments, a series of cul-de-sacs. The lower third of many homes are canvasses for colourful murals. The murals—traditional designs created with paint that had been donated by former gang members—drastically reduced incidents of graffiti. The town’s street turned into a country road with yarrow and prairie grasses growing up to the asphalt. Eventually, I bumped along the Louis’s long driveway, and passed Roy’s daughter’s home at the bend. Then the Louis’s sprawling bungalow came into sight. Set on high ground, it has sweeping views of the Battle River. A sacred area, demarcated by flags, was laid out 15 metres from my parkedcar. The Song of the Red Horse came from here. Roy’s grandfather, the famous war chief Maskepetoon, once camped here.

Roy Louis waved from the doorway of the home he built in 1980. He had once wanted to be a police officer. He led me through a lower sitting room full of the Louis’s collections and keepsakes that included a Hudson’s Bay spirit blanket, the headdress of his father, a painting by Eddy Cobiness, a buffalo jaw, one of Father Lacombe’s original bibles, and sacred ceremonial objects. As we climbed three stairs to the dining room, Judy Louis greeted me with a hug (we had never met) and said, “Do you like coffee? We have Starbucks on the rez!” As we walked through their upper living room I pointed to a pair of rattles. “What were these used for?”

“Oh yeah, they’re from a trip to Cuba,” Roy laughed. Paintings by George Littlechild and Norval Morriseau overlooked Roy’s mother’s medicine bag. He comes from a long line of leaders. His paternal grandfather was Louis Natuasis, headman to Chief Joe Samson for twenty-seven years. His maternal grandfather, James Seenum, signed Treaty 6 as he was Chief Paktan. His father, Jacob Louis, was chief of Samson for a quarter century and a farmer who used horses to break his land.

We sat at their antique dining table, warmed by the sun that flooded the main floor of the house. They married twelve years ago. Judy was a teacher from a nearby town and white family, however she’d known Roy’s family most of her life. His older brother had traditionally adopted her, after her mother had sought out cultural mentors for Judy’s three adopted Dene siblings.

We can have a lack of empathy that comes across, to protect us, but that same lack of empathy takes away who we are. In the end, it kills us.

Her first memory of him is at a parade in Hobbema three decades before. “There came this guy down the street with a white buckskin outfit on a horse. He had jet-black hair and it was Roy.”

“It developed into a full-blown war, basically,” he said. “Kids weren’t playing outside because they were afraid of gunshots.”

“People weren’t smoking on their deck because they were afraid of gun fire,” Judy added.

“There were three-hundred gang members in the four nations,” Roy said.

“But there was another incident, almost as significant as gang members,” Judy completed his thought. “During a sundance ceremony one of the RCMP drove right through the sacred grounds. The community chastised the RCMP and, I can tell you, we didn’t need any more animosity towards the police.”

The RCMP asked the Louises if they’d facilitate a two-hour cultural awareness training for officers at the Maskwacis detachment. The two hours grew to become a two-day workshop, the first held in a classroom and the second day in a more traditional manner, starting with a pipe ceremony, then a sweat, and finishing with a feast.

The impact of the training showed in many ways, one of them being the very nature of calls the detachment received. Slowly, the RCMP saw a change from always being asked the question What are you doing? to asking themselves the question What can we do?

Roy looked out the dining room window at ground covered with medicines and low brush, noting for me that this land has hosted many sweats specifically for simakanisak. Top-ranking provincial RCMP officers have sat with the Louises under the willow branches and canvas of a sweat lodge. “The warm water and the heat allows the officers to dump everything, to get rid of some of that stuff they’re carrying around,” said Judy Louis. “And sometimes even to talk about it.”

Edmonton rally

A rally in Edmonton.

Dan Jones always wanted to be a police officer. Even as his friendsgot involved in using and then running drugs, he stayed out of it. He had a daughter when he was nineteen, which meant he had to get a job, which led him eventually to work at the prisons, where he ended up guarding three of his friends. “I don’t believe in bad guys,” he said during a talk as part of Citizens’ Police Academy, a program that educates the public about policing methods. “I believe in weakchoices.” Holding an Anchorman mug, he spoke to the group about street gangs. “What’s the difference between a street gang and organized crime syndicate?” he said. “Organized crime is about business. Street gangs are about respect.”

Street gangs sell belonging to kids, then they ply them with drugs and control them with violence.

For the next hour and a half, participants focused on the Inspector. Jones talked about life as a youth worker, about walking the beat and then going undercover into a neo-Nazi group. He used the word “wiretap” numerous times and as casually as I might mention the weather.

“We isolate our aboriginal population for a whole set of reasons, right?” he told me later at his office. “The racism that goes on this country is absolutely…”

His email pinged, the message updating him on news that a teenager had left her family in Alberta to join ISIS in Syria. Radicalization is part of his file now. With startling ease he linked Islamic extremism to aboriginal-based street gangs: the gangs manipulate the warrior culture, in much the same way ISIS warps and co-opts Islam. Street gangs sell belonging to kids, then they ply them with drugs and control them with violence, all but twisting it until it is no longer recognizable as one of the core Cree values Roy Louis was raised to respect: wahkotowin. It means kinship, blood memory. And it is what most ties nations together. Jones pulled out a warrior drawing a gang member had given him. It was a stylized image of an aboriginal man. On his left half, the man wore traditional leather and beadwork, an eagle feather headdress and held a bow. The right half of the man was dressed in modern street garb. His bulging muscles were exposed. As were gang badges tattooed on the arm that held a pistol.

Stop the suicides protester

In 2012, senior EPS officers came to the rather belated realization that they had no aboriginal strategy or aboriginal relations unit. The EPS hierarchy, many with former RCMP ties to the Maskwacis area, connected Dan Jones with Roy and Judy Louis. Later that year, various EPS members shared bannock at the Louis’s dining table and developed a day-long curriculum based on much of what the Louises had done for the RCMP.

“We hit on four themes: colonization, residential schools, treaties and the Indian Act because they allimpact First Nations people across the country,” said Roy.

“And the most important thing we identified,” said Judy, “was that we need to help officers identify and understand how stereotypes and biases impact aboriginal communities and their relationships with the police.”

The training was called “Learning Together: Wahkotowin.” Each of the training days, held at Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Centre, was opened by one of the three most senior EPS members. The chief and his deputies created the tone for the sharing circle that followed. “Then, we’d start every day with a talking circle and a smudge,” said Roy. Holding the eagle feather, each member shared his or her hope for the day. Then, Louis released the officers to view pictures posted on the wall. “Write the first thing that comes to your brain when you look at the pictures,” he instructed. “No political correctness allowed.”

“I tell you, it could be brutal,” Judy said.

“The different myths and misconceptions came up,” said Roy, “Like: You’re a drain on society. You’re a menace because you are filling the jails and overcrowding the child welfare system. They were expressing their beliefs and that was OK. We needed to deal with that right off the bat.”

In one photo, a dark haired man with a sparse moustache hugged his four smiling kids. The officers wrote: A man on a supervised visit with his kids.

“Who’s taking the picture?” Louis asked. His case officer.

In fact, this was a prominent aboriginal activist out with his family. His wife had taken the picture.

In another, a light-skinned family of four knelt in traditional aboriginal dress. The father wore a knee-length headdress, while the mother and kids smiled in elaborately beaded shawls. People dressing up for Halloween. It was in reality a Mi’kmaq family preparing for ceremony.

A third picture showed a set of handcuffs. Justice, wrote the officers. These were, in fact, the tiny handcuffs used to punish kids in residential schools.

What followed was a frenzied march through an often wretched history, from pre- and post-contact, to the impact of colonialism and residential schools. Louis presented dizzying facts that were new to most of the participants. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996. South Africa’s apartheid system was heavily influenced by Canada’s Indian policies. The workshop participants were reminded that Duncan Campbell Scott, who held the fate of many aboriginal communities in his hands as federal deputy minister of Indian Affairs from 1913 until 1932, had said: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”

Jones jumped in every time he thought the officers at the training sessions were becoming defensive. Louis covered the facts and Jones, as a high-ranking officer,offered the commentary.

After lunch, Teresa Strong shared her experiences from the inside of an aboriginal-based street gang, and talked about how her life changed since then. In one session, as Strong described the robbery that would lead to her final sentence, an officer audibly gasped. She remembered the crime scene, because she had been a first responder—one of the first to see Strong’s victim beaten, bloodied and terrified.

“It’s just hard to believe,” the officer said. Her response was visceral and raw. “It’s hard to believe that you’ve changed.”

Strong shrugged. “I don’t have to prove it to you.”

Jones interjected. “We are not here to judge.”

The officers, inspired by Strong’s story, then gave some reflections of their own. On every call, they do their job and leave. They rarely discovered what happened to the people involved in offences, or gained insight about them. Now they had heard a survival story. The officers gave Strong her first standing ovation.

Because they started with a circle, the training closed with a sharing circle. In almost every session, as the eagle feather travelled clockwise, a police officer disclosed aboriginal heritage that he or she hadn’t mentioned when the day began. Close to five percent of EPS officers have aboriginal heritage. “It’s probably significantly higher because there are many on this job who have never disclosed that they are aboriginal on their file,” said Jones. “As a nation, we have really marginalized a group of people and made it not OK for them to be proud to be who they are.”

As the simakanisak rolled out from Bent Arrow on to the streets in their patrol cars and bikes, they began to use the Louis’s advice on building rapport with aboriginal people. One officer started showing up at Bent Arrow on his days off to play floor hockey with kids. Another listened to a Cree language app. He learned enough of the language that when he was called to a violent domestic dispute, he de-escalated the situation almost entirely in Cree. Not long ago, another simakanis responded to a call at a Light Rail Transit station. A heavily intoxicated and belligerent man was threatening riders while slumped against a brick wall near the tracks. The officer approached and removed her black leather glove. She offered him her hand. “Tanisi,” she said. It is a simple greeting.

“I think I need to sober up so I can teach you more Cree,” the man said.

“I’d like that,” said the officer. “But how about you sober up outside the station.” The man complied.

After almost every session, Roy and Judy Louis received emails from officers seeking resources and advice. Many officers now carry a small supply of cigarettes in their ticket boxes (though not all Nations use tobacco as protocol).

In 2015, Learning Together: Wahkotowin will be repeated for all new recruits and the remainder of the EPS officers who haven’t yet participated (high-ranking members and specialized units). A more in-depth optional four-day training program is being developed. “It’s a small drop in the bucket,” said Jones. “But we have a lot of great cops who are very relationship-oriented. Those are the ones we need to champion change for.”

They are the ones who Moonbeams might, one day, come to trust.

“I appreciate the apology,”Gary Moostoos said to the City Centre Mall spokesperson. It was nine days after his expulsion and a rally was being held honouring Moostoos and shaming the mall. “I cannot accept the apology today, however. I would like to see what you do within the next six months. Then, I will be in a place where I can hear those two words [we’re sorry]. Those two words are powerful. You cannot just say them and expect someone to say it is all right. It is not all right.” As they knelt together for an honour song, the female spokesperson began to shake as the drummers played. Moostoos held her hand.

Moostoos isn’t one to hold a grudge. He’s reached out to law officers in other ways. Last fall, he invited the EPS to come out of town with him to pick herbal medicines. One beat officer joined them, then began to stop by the community centre more often. He participated in a pipe ceremony. He came for brush downs (smudging ceremony). After making his own drum, he asked Moostoos if he would teach him a song. The officer brought his drum and the spiritual elder and Moostoos taught him a water song: a song about how the spirit comes to life. In time, the simakanis asked Moostoos if he could make and serve a meal for the Boyle Street community. He came with his partner… and nearly 50 other officers.

Because some of the officers were on duty, he asked: “Can we come in uniform?” He hastened to add: “We aren’t there to arrest anyone, just to build trust.”

Moostoos wasn’t sure how his people would respond. Some joked about it. “Are they going to serve us lunch or warrants?”

“They are here today to honour us,” said Moostoos before the meal. “It is the start of a good relationship with those meant to protect us.”

Four hundred people were served chilli, buns and fruit that day. Only one person refused to accept food from the cops, and another ate but refused to talk. After the food had been served, the officers moved through the room clearing plates. One cop approached a woman whose plate was scraped clean. “Can I take that?”

“You can fuck off,” she offered.

The simakanis gently removed the plate from the table and placed it in the garbage bag he held. “I can do that, too.”

• This story is from the spring 2015 issue of Eighteen Bridges. Subscribe here, or order a digital edition.

Carissa Halton lives with her three kids and husband in Edmonton’s inner city. She’s writing a book of essays – or, rather, a complicated love story – about living in a revitalizing neighbourhood.

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2 Responses to “A New Kind of Simakanis: Truth, Trust and Consequences on the Street”

  1. Laurence Miall
    Thursday, June 16th, 2016 at 11:44 AM #

    Fantastic article. Thanks.

  2. Barbara Boyes
    Sunday, May 6th, 2018 at 12:00 AM #

    The clash of cultures in North America may be confusing to many people who still wish to honour and remember their past histories, but are drawn into subverted and dangerous lifestyles that involve gangs, drugs and violence etc. Why can’t governments recognize the unique beauty of individual cultures by promoting the best of each culture in terms of its history, foods and natural medicines, clothing, etc. in order to give “modern youth” options of living, rather than homogenize everyone into a sort of jumbled meltpot of combined cultures that is too confusing, and lacks any sense of vision or traditional comforts of ancestry and pride. Allowing people to showcase, via museums, projects and community involvement might be a good start to providing better options of living styles that draw on the successes and victories of the past by restoring self esteem to modern confused youth wondering what they are all about and who they really are etc. by first exploring and understanding themselves by learning about their past ancestry, and their proud heritage. One must know where one comes from in terms of history before one can make wise and happy choices for future happiness and success, I believe! As Shakespeare also said: “To thine own self be true”

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