Indigenous people in Labrador are asking questions about why police release the names of some people charged with crimes, and not others.
In comments on Facebook, Inuit and Innu people have asked the RCMP to explain the process by which a person’s name is released, and suggested that Indigenous people were being unfairly singled out.
A spokesperson for the RCMP said race is not a factor in the decision to release an accused person’s name, but a review by CBC found Indigenous people seem to be overrepresented among the people named in news releases published on social media between May 1 and July 24.
“It’s all over Facebook. It’s a huge thing,” said Jodie Ashini of Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation, who was among the people questioning the RCMP on social media.
“Everybody knows your name, and it’s easier for non-Indigenous people to judge us.”
Names in the news
The RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador issue several news releases each day. Some are about ongoing investigations; others acknowledge specific efforts of officers; and some are about cases in which charges have been laid.
In the period CBC News reviewed, 85 news releases were issued announcing charges laid in connection with crimes, including impaired driving, assault, sexual abuse and theft.
Of those, eight referenced crimes that occurred in Indigenous communities, and in almost every one of those cases (seven out of eight, or almost 88 per cent of the time), the alleged perpetrator was named.
In the remaining 77 cases, people were named in only 20 releases, or 26 per cent of the time.
Overall, out of 27 releases that included the name of the person charged, 26 per cent included the names of people from Indigenous communities in Labrador. Indigenous people make up just 8.9 per cent of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador, according to the 2016 census.
“It’s just not equality,” Ashini said. “It’s not fair to us.”
Cpl. Jolene Garland, a media relations officer with the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador, said there is no effort on the part of police to single out Indigenous people.
“Race, gender, ethnicity and locations of crimes being committed are not factored into the release of the individual’s name,” she said.
The only factor, Garland said, is whether the charges against a person have been sworn in court at the time the release is issued.
If not, the accused’s name is not public information and therefore cannot be published.
If the charges have been sworn, Garland said, the accused person’s name is included in a release.
Criminal defence lawyer Mark Gruchy said it is vital for court records to be public.
He said there are times it makes sense for the police to release the name of a person charged with a crime, but given CBC’s findings, a generalized practice warrants review.
“While I understand the sample size to be relatively small, that is a substantial percentage,” he said.
“The people involved are Indigenous, so yeah, it does seem to be a bit disproportionate to say the least.”
Force grapples with systemic racism
As Black Lives Matter demonstrations continue, the RCMP and other police forces are reckoning with systemic racism and the role it plays in the work police officers do.
In June, the RCMP’s commanding officer in Newfoundland and Labrador, Ches Parsons, acknowledged that officers hold unconscious biases and pledged to work with the community to improve relationships.
Garland would not comment on whether systemic racism played a role in the overrepresentation of Indigenous people on the list of individuals named in press releases.
“I’m not even in a position to say that they’re overrepresented,” she said.
“I’m not able to comment without having the information to actually comment on. So, I can’t give you that kind of response without looking further into it.”
Asked if she believed it was a matter worth further review, Garland said, “If it’s something that the public has interest in and wants to know, if there’s something that we can look into, we can certainly see if that’s information that we can gather.”
Naming as a deterrent
Garland said there are a number of reasons why police release the names of people charged with crimes when possible.
Chief among them: accountability and transparency. Garland said the release of names is intended to instill confidence in the public that police are doing their jobs.
Another reason, the officer said, is to attempt to discourage others from breaking the law.
“Releasing a person’s name to the public is a generalized deterrent to those who may be considering committing crime.”
Gruchy, who has defended people in St. John’s and in Labrador, said the spirit of the open courts principle, which demands public access to the courts, should not be used as a crime deterrence measure.
“What it’s about is making sure the public sees what’s going on, not about assuming that people who are accused of things are guilty and should be shamed.”
Shame is what Jodie Ashini says people in her community feel when they are named on the RCMP’s Facebook page, which can be seen by thousands of people.
Ashini says police should either name everyone charged with a crime or no one.
“Why is it that their name can be publicly broadcasted all over Newfoundland and Labrador while other people … don’t get their name released? They don’t have to have the shame over their head.”
Indigenous legal orders
Lawyer Elizabeth Zarpa, an Inuk from Labrador who works in St. John’s, said police could improve their relationships with Innu and Inuit communities by better understanding Indigenous laws.
Innu and Inuit had their own systems of law and order before colonization. As courts established by European settlers took hold, Zarpa said, many Indigenous legal orders were eroded or completely erased.
She said the pushback against the practice of naming people accused of crimes indicates a philosophical difference of opinion, which police should learn more about.
“One of the processes that might facilitate a better reconciling of the relationship between the RCMP and Indigenous people in Canada is maybe figuring out the protocols directly with Indigenous Labradorians around whether or not they actually can name people in their [news releases] and under what conditions.”
Gruchy said police should also consider the unique relationship Indigenous people have with the RCMP, a force established to further the goals of colonialism.
“There’s a history there which is becoming very acutely felt and understood amongst Indigenous communities,” he said.
“I could see how they would find any continued sense of … oppression, or management in a colonial sense, to be quite distressing.”