Cree-Métis lawyer Myrna McCallum makes her mark holding cops accountable and elevating awareness of trauma
When an Indigenous mother, Deborah Campbell, tried to observe Vancouver police officers taking her 19-year-old son into custody in 2015, she encountered a hostile response.
According to a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruling more than four years later, the arrest took about 20 minutes. Over this period, Campbell was “roughly and physically separated from her son and blocked from witnessing his arrest”.
“Her questions about what was happening went largely unanswered, and she was warned that her own behaviour could justify a charge of obstruction of justice,” tribunal member Devyn Cousineau concluded in her December 2019 ruling.
Campbell received a $20,000 award plus $1,500 for expenses incurred that night after Cousineau declared that the VPD had discriminated against her as an Indigenous mother.
It was a landmark victory for Campbell and her two Indigenous lawyers, Amber Prince and Myrna McCallum. Cousineau’s decision linked the officers’ conduct to their lack of understanding about the legacy of colonization, which was exposed under cross-examination by McCallum.
In a recent phone interview with the Straight, McCallum said that she presented the officers with a report that their own chief had commissioned, Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges. The VPD had submitted it to the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2018.
“Not one of those officers, including their own Indigenous liaison officer, had ever seen that document or ever read it,” McCallum said. “And that was really quite shocking to me.
“And then when I asked each of them how they defined reconciliation or what that meant to them, none of their answers were consistent,” the Cree-Métis lawyer continued. “And more often than not, they really had no explanation.”
McCallum spoke to the Straight in advance of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which takes place on Sunday (March 21).
According to the ruling, back in 2015 officers only received a half-day course on policing Indigenous people. Three of the cops who testified had never even heard of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
McCallum added that she was shocked by what she described as “stereotype-upholding” views from a VPD member under oath.
“One officer said to me something along the lines of, ‘Well, they have broken family structures and they rely on housing subsidies,’ ” McCallum recalled. “I really found it quite alarming that that was what he understood Indigenous people to be collectively experiencing.”
Less than a month later, VPD officers detained and handcuffed a 12-year-old Indigenous girl and her grandfather in the back of a squad car after they tried to open a bank account at a downtown BMO branch. A bank employee became suspicious and called the cops when the pair used Indian Status cards as identification.
Chief Adam Palmer later defended his officers’ conduct, saying the bank had insisted that fraud had been committed. The chair of the police board, Mayor Kennedy Stewart, heaped blame on BMO rather than the police for what had transpired.
None of this surprised McCallum.
“After the Campbell decision, Amber and I both wrote to the mayor and we both tried to reach out to the chief,” McCallum said. “No response. Nothing.”
Since then, her co-counsel, Prince, has been appointed to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
McCallum alleged that Stewart and Palmer “are more interested in performing relationships” around reconciliation with photo ops rather than communicating the importance of this issue to cops on the beat.
If they were really serious about this, McCallum added, the principles and commitments in Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges would have filtered down through the department.
“And their officers clearly know nothing,” McCallum said of their testimony. “It’s so scary, especially for the Indigenous people who are powerless and voiceless.”
McCallum zeroes in on trauma
A few months after winning the case before the tribunal, McCallum launched a podcast in partnership with the Canadian Bar Association called The Trauma-Informed Lawyer.
It came after she reflected on her own trauma as someone who attended Indian residential school in Saskatchewan, as well as the trauma that her mother and grandmother had experienced as Indigenous women.
“I ended up going into criminal law and then I did adjudication work,” McCallum said. “And one of the things I noticed pretty quickly was that I was not prepared for all of the traumas that were meeting me in courtrooms and hearing rooms.”
She feels that lawyers often encounter people in distress or in trauma, particularly in cases involving immigration, family, human rights, or criminal law.
In response to this, she said, lawyers can become detached as a coping mechanism. They live in their heads to ignore their own feelings about what's before them.
According to McCallum, that leads many of them to engage in “transactional” exchanges with clients. These lawyers shy away from seeing the whole person, preferring to focus largely on legal questions.
“What I have learned through my podcasts and through having these really meaningful and important conversations with all of these guests is that law school really overlooks the fact that we come into an institution and a profession with our own traumas and our own triggers,” McCallum said.
“No one gives us a heads-up about how or own traumas and our triggers can collide with the traumas of the people that we are working with," she continued. “And when that happens, if you are not well-supported or practise a lot of self-awareness, it can really set you up for significant mental-health issues.”
On her podcast, she says that becoming a trauma-informed lawyer will challenge a practitioner to critically reflect on their behaviours, personal beliefs, and biases while calling on them to transform the way they approach their advocacy to avoid doing further harm to others.
This approach can also get to the root of why lawyers may devolve into a spiral of addiction, whether that be to drugs, alcohol, work, or anything else.
“Your education starts right here, right now,” she tells her listeners.
Her first guest on June 1, 2020, was Dr. Gabor Maté, a Vancouver physician who has written extensively about the links between trauma, addiction, and self-harm.
After several more episodes, McCallum has a growing list of subscribers around the world and she’s been invited to speak to law schools, law societies, and law firms in many cities.
“Some law schools are requiring that their students listen to the podcast—it’s required listening for some of their courses,” McCallum said. “It’s just quite amazing.”
The Trauma-Informed Lawyer podcast isn’t only for people in the legal profession—McCallum pointed out that many can benefit from it, including police officers.
“It’s for anyone who carries trauma,” she added. “And I would say right now in this pandemic, we all do.”