Current Problems

Justice (25-42)

RCMP collecting race-based data is a ‘double-edged sword,’ says Indigenous leader

January 25, 2024

“If you are coming from a police lens or perhaps a white-based lens, that’s going to influence how the data is framed.’ —Dr. Kanika Samuels-Wortley, associate professor in criminology from Ontario Tech University

From left to right: Dr. Mai Phan, acting director of the RCMP anti-racism unit, Fort McKay Métis Nation President Ron Quintal, and Dr. Kanika Samuels-Wortley, associate professor in criminology from Ontario Tech University.

By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter Fort McKay Métis Nation President Ron Quintal is surprised to learn that the RCMP detachment that services his northern Alberta community is collecting race-based data.

Since Jan. 8, the Wood Buffalo RCMP detachment, along with detachments in Thompson, Man. and Whitehorse, Yukon, has been collecting data based solely on the officer’s perception of the race of the person he is investigating.

“We actually have three (RCMP) constables that we pay extra dollars for in Fort McKay to have extra constables in the community because we want a strong police presence,” said Quintal, yet he was unaware that the detachment was a pilot project site.

Dr. Mai Phan, acting director of the RCMP anti-racism unit, says public consultations to roll out the pilot project occurred throughout 2022 and 2023 and included Indigenous communities.

Not his, says Quintal. “I have not been privy to any of that information.”

Phan says the race-based data is expected to identify where the RCMP is having “disparate impacts and disparities in outcomes.” The end goal, she says, is to “have some concrete initiatives and solutions to improving our policies, our training and…our procedures, if that is where the findings are pointing us to.”

RCMP members will be trained on how to collect the data and collecting the data will be mandatory. Both Indigenous and racialized communities will be recorded using Ontario’s anti-racism data standards. For racialized communities, officers’ perceptions will indicate white, Black, east/southeast Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino or Indigenous.

RCMP members’ perceptions of Indigenous people are to be ticked off in one of five option boxes: First Nations, Métis, Inuit, perceived but unknown Indigenous identity, and not perceived to be of Indigenous identity.

“When we engage with Indigenous organizations and communities, they communicated the importance of taking a distinction-based approach. We know that Indigenous communities are diverse and there is an interest in understanding if there are disparities for specific Indigenous groups as well,” said Phan.

Phan doesn’t anticipate the data will be skewed by some RCMP members not accurately recording their impressions. However, she didn’t indicate what checks were in place to ensure that didn’t happen as the RCMP will not be asking people to self-identify.

“Officer perception is an important metric to identify whether perceived race or perceived Indigenous identity is a factor or influences outcomes for different groups of people. We will be using that data to analyze our impacts and outcomes for community groups in the pilot locations,” said Phan.

The RCMP will start with the officer-perception method, said RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Kim Chamberland, “to ensure accuracy, learn from the process, and make improvements in handling and using sensitive information before expanding future efforts.”

Chamberland added that the RCMP will consult with Indigenous communities to explore how self-identification data can be collected in “a meaningful, and culturally and psychologically safe way.”

The lack of double identification—RCMP impression and personal self-identification—runs contrary to the approach Statistics Canada and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) are proposing in collecting race-based data on both accused persons and victims through the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey. Police report to StatsCan information on all criminal incidents through the UCR.

Dr. Kanika Samuels-Wortley, an associate professor in criminology from Ontario Tech University, and whose work is referenced in the StatsCan and CACP’s recommendations for collecting race-based data, says the double method of collection is important.

“Race is a very complex and nuanced understanding,” she said. If a person is identified by the RCMP in a way that person does not identify as it is “very important for an individual to have a sense of autonomy in order for them to be clear about how they identify.”

Samuels-Wortley admits that analysing the two sets of data is complicated when trying to determine trends. “But I think it is important that we collect both in order for us to do a more well-rounded analysis and understanding of the impact of race,” she said.

For this pilot project, the RCMP will be collecting data only on the person who is the focus of an investigation, which is limited to wellness checks and arrests.

The RCMP already collects data in these circumstances, says Phan, but now the data will be collected using consistent methodology.

Data will not be collected on missing persons, witnesses, victims, or on people who are the focus of police stops. Stops were voiced as a concern by Indigenous and racialized communities, says Phan.

“There are limitations in our current data collection systems where we don’t have the capability of collecting in all stops. In order to meet the needs of having a robust data foundation for understanding systemic disparities and those kinds of outcomes, we need that,” she said of that capacity.

Samuels-Wortley believes data collection must go beyond the person who is the focus of an investigation. “I think if we just focus on criminal activity, it can actually do disservice, and the focus can be, if we do see disparities, that can maintain stereotypes about who engages in crime in Canada,” she said.

It’s a concern that Quintal shares.

“I think it could help with specifics in terms of police enforcement with Indigenous peoples. But further to that, it could further push Indigenous people to (be seen) as high-risk offenders. It’s a double-edged sword. It has to be handled very carefully in any context,” he said.

The pilot project is anticipated to last for one year. The data will then be analysed by both independent researchers and a dedicated RCMP team with expertise in the subject matter, says Phan.

The results will be shared with the public.

“The intention and the commitment is to provide open data, anonymize the identified data to the public, and bring it back to the communities and the public for their own analysis and research. But we will also be publicizing the reports that come out of this research,” said Phan.

There needs to be a “huge level of transparency” when it comes to analysing the data, says Samuels-Wortley, and it must involve Indigenous and racialized experts.

“If you are coming from a police lens or perhaps a white-based lens, that’s going to influence how the data is framed. So it is very important that you have folks who come from the community to also provide input into what the data may demonstrate,” she said.

The data needs to be contextualized as well, she says. “Stories need to accompany the numbers, and the numbers need to accompany the stories because… you can’t go deeper into (the data) without understanding those other experiences,” she said.

Quintal contends that data should not be shared without the permission of the community. “I believe at the end of the day that consent is needed prior to any release of any information having to do with individuals, especially Indigenous people,” he said.

Quintal points out that the Cree word for RCMP is simâkanis, with simâk meaning “right now.” Indigenous experience with the RCMP, he says, is that they came to take people “right now” to residential schools, to be arrested “right now”, or to apprehend children “right now”.

“There’s a huge mistrust between RCMP and Indigenous communities,” he said. “I think that once that analysis is done, the communities can, if they choose, look to have a third party analyze that in terms of ‘do we believe the analysis’.”

Quintal urges the RCMP to meet with Indigenous communities and have a “clear conversation” about which areas data needs to be collected and how that data will be used. “Those are really important conversations that need to take place, especially if they’re going to be using the pilot project here in Wood Buffalo. There’s no better place to have those conversations with all of the Indigenous communities,” he said.

Quintal points out that First Nations and Métis in the region have been working together to address issues of safety in their communities.  

“That’s an important opportunity for the RCMP to take advantage of. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to have the leaders of the communities in one room with the leader of the RCMP and have that open discussion so that we can start to build best practices and we can align with what the targets are and we can give insight into what we believe could help the program get the best data possible to assist in finding best practices for policing?” asked Quintal.

Two more detachments, yet to be determined in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, will round out the five sites for the pilot project.

However, it is unclear how long after the pilot project is completed that the national rollout of race-based data collection will begin.

Support Independent Journalism. SUPPORT US!