Aboriginal youth force VPD to change ways

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      Vancouver police Insp. John de Haas walks into the East Hastings Street office of the Urban Native Youth Association. He notices a copy of the local Redwire magazine, which carries a cover illustration of two RCMP officers handcuffing an aboriginal man.

      De Haas, who is the officer in charge of the VPD's youth section, quips that it's a sign of progress for his department. That's because this time, the VPD isn't on the receiving end of criticism from the aboriginal youth who produce Redwire.

      A few minutes later, de Haas and two other police veterans join some of the leaders of the Vancouver aboriginal-youth movement for a group photograph in front of a squad car. All six appear to be extremely comfortable in each others' presence—a sign of improved relations from 18 months ago, when delegations of aboriginal youth repeatedly showed up at police-board meetings.

      Later in UNYA's boardroom, Preston Guno, a youth worker, recalled what it was like back in 2004. At the time, he was working at an aboriginal-youth centre at the corner of East Broadway and Fraser Street.

      Guno told the Georgia Straight that Vancouver police officers regularly "hassled" aboriginal youths who gathered outside the building. He claimed that cops wouldn't get out of their cars and approach the youths with respect; instead, they would order youths to come to the window of their squad cars for a few words.

      "When the staff would stand there and observe to make sure things were legit, the [police] attitude we got was, 'Take a walk. If you want trouble, continue to stand there,' " Guno said. "We knew what our rights were as an adult. We can observe a youth being arrested in terms of making sure everything was legit, so that's what we did."

      The same year, the VPD closed its Native-police liaison office after promising city council in 2003 that this wouldn't occur. Aboriginal youth leaders, including Guno, were also well aware that the VPD had never created an aboriginal advisory committee, despite a recommendation to do so in then-justice Wally Oppal's report on municipal policing.

      If that wasn't enough to sour relations, there was the ongoing media coverage of the 1998 death of Frank Paul. The 47-year-old Micmac had been dragged out of a police jail cell and left in an East Vancouver alley, where he died of hypothermia.

      In the spring of 2004, several aboriginal youth leaders decided to take action. Guno said they began appearing alongside aboriginal youth before the seven-member Vancouver police board, which oversees the department, to try to forge a new relationship.

      Guno, local aboriginal hip-hop artist Curtis Clearsky, Urban Native Youth Association president Melanie Mark, and Kelly L'Hirondelle of Knowledgeable Aboriginal Youth Advocates were among those who made presentations over a six-month period. Even though they approached the board in a respectful tone, their wishes were ignored at first, according to Guno.

      "We asserted our voice respectfully, but assertively," Guno said.

      (Left to right): Melanie Mark, Preston Guno, Insp. John de Haas, Dena Klashinsky, and Const. Dave Dixon.
      Charlie Smith

      Around the same time, de Haas visited the youth centre on East Broadway to seek more information. Little did Guno realize at the time that de Haas would become a powerful ally in bringing the concerns of aboriginal youth to the attention of police executives.

      Sitting in his office on East 8th Avenue, de Haas described some of the things that occurred to enhance the relationship. He told the Straight that police played a basketball game with aboriginal youth.

      The VPD supported UNYA's efforts to raise funds for a new $30-million aboriginal-youth centre. And de Haas began attending every meeting of the Vancouver Aboriginal Council, which is a key decision-making body within the urban aboriginal community.

      In addition, de Haas started educating himself about the historical treatment of aboriginal people in Canada. He said it began with a lecture to police executives by Bob Joseph Jr., the son of a hereditary chief of the same name.

      In addition, de Haas learned about various court rulings that have upheld the validity of the 1763 Royal Proclamation, which promised that First Nations wouldn't have their land taken away without their consent. And he began to appreciate the impact that the Indian Act had on aboriginal societies.

      "What I was learning in a lot of my discussions was that there were several phrases that I heard that I didn't understand—which I do now," de Haas said.

      He added that he initially found the phrase cultural genocide offensive until he learned about the history of residential schools, which stripped aboriginal people of their language and converted them to Christianity.

      "What else is cultural genocide than tearing your children away, denying your culture, your language, your religion?" de Haas asked.

      He learned about the concept of "decolonization" and what it meant to "take the Indian out of the Indian". De Haas discovered that the "true history" of aboriginal people included seeing their populations being slaughtered by diseases to which they had no immunity. And he realized that many aboriginal people have a deep cultural attachment to the land and to their extended families, which is often severed when they move to urban areas.

      "They don't come to the city as bands; they come as individuals," he said.

      As part of his immersion in aboriginal culture, de Haas also learned about the significance of the Thunderbird as a protector in traditional societies.

      To make the police appear more relevant to aboriginal people, de Haas came up with the idea of putting an aboriginal painting of a Thunderbird on the front fender of Vancouver police cars. The final artwork hasn't been completed yet.

      In addition, the VPD created an aboriginal-youth-VPD working group, which later became a subcommittee of an aboriginal advisory committee. It helped obtain federal funding for a Kwantlen University College-VPD study on emerging strategies for dealing with aboriginal-youth justice.

      De Haas said the committee's goal is to "reduce the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in at-risk and criminal circumstances".

      On December 31, the committee completed a business plan to create an aboriginal-police liaison office.

      "There is no point in opening an aboriginal office unless the aboriginal community tells us where it should be," de Haas said.

      Mark, who formerly worked as a student intern with the RCMP in Hazelton, told the Straight that de Haas has an "incredible insight" into aboriginal culture.

      "For someone who is involved in policing to take that time and interest—it's exceptional," she said.

      Clearsky told the Straight that even though he has encountered racial profiling from police in the past, he is encouraged by the steps that de Haas is taking to understand aboriginal culture.

      However, both Clearsky and Guno emphasized that this is just the "beginning of a foundation" for creating better relations between aboriginal youth and the entire department.

      "It's a critical time," Clearsky said. "The government and the police need to deal with our community in a positive way."

      Guno said that urban aboriginal youth, with the assistance of elders, are deconstructing a negative image of aboriginal people that has existed for decades.

      He added he will feel that the aboriginal youth are succeeding in their efforts with the police when there is a truly meaningful aboriginal advisory committee, and when there is an "aboriginal peacekeepers unit" that works as a liaison between police and the community.

      "We're confident we'll move forward regardless of who is on the VPD side," Guno said. "We're at a point now where we're not backing down."