The relationship between Indigenous people in Canada and in the North and the police – and all government really — has always been strained.

According to a brief history posted on the Dene Nation’s website, it was an RCMP inspector based in Calgary that was called in when the Dene at Dettah refused treaty payment to protest their treaty and aboriginal rights being infringed on by game laws.

The Dene had demanded a meeting with the Governor General of Canada, obviously expecting a nation-to-nation exchange on the subject and instead were treated like subjects themselves. Even that example from 1938 is preceded by centuries of what has been described as genocide. The second entry in the Dene Nation’s online chronology following the Royal Proclamation of 1763 is the decimation of the Chipewyan by smallpox from 1781 to 1784.

Somewhere around here is where National Post columnist Rex Murphy’s privilege betrays him. Murphy wrote recently that he can’t see any systemic racism in Canada from the flower-lined street he lives on.

But there is no daylight between our colonial roots and the systemic racism within our institutions, law enforcement, justice and incarceration, included, today. This is root, trunk and branch.

Systemic racism doesn’t preclude acts of overt racism, if anything it fosters them. It doesn’t scream hate like a racially-motivated assault, or the destruction or defacement of a monument, or the property of a racialized person, such as a business. But it serves to keep minorities on the margins and helps those in power retain it.

The recent alleged or apparent assaults on Indigenous individuals by police officers when they were either restrained or defenseless rightly attract a lot of attention. Examples of systemic racism are harder to spot, or to prove but it’s there nonetheless.

Lisa Thurber’s complaint, for instance, that the territorial government does not support Indigenous entrepreneurs. That’s her contention after the NWT Business Development and Investment Corporation foreclosed on her gas station business in Enterprise after missing two payments on a $585,000 loan last year. 

Is that systematic racism? How about the GNWT’s decision to cancel occupancy permits for the long-running Frontier Fishing Lodge, which the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation purchased last December?

The government can argument that’s just the usual red tape everybody has to endure. We would point out, whether it be with the police, employment, health or education, it’s always Indigenous people in the territory who suffer the worst. That’s what the statistics show us year after year. 

If there is one racial and cultural group suffering a worse outcome than another group, then that is a textbook definition of systemic racism because the system has been designed to benefit the non-indigenous people who created it. 

This is not necessarily a conscious design but it is the reality. 

And until we change the system so that it benefits everybody it will continue to be so.

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