This story originally appeared in our Spring 2017 issue
After a Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian, died while in police custody on July 24, 2016, simmering racial tensions boiled over. In October of the same year, data collected over two years backed up claims that racial profiling happens on Ottawa streets. Then, as the city mourned Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook, a racist comment online — made by an officer — served as a lightning rod, causing public outcry.
In this profile series, Judy Trinh hears from four people about why they lost trust in the Ottawa Police Service. She also talks to [former] Chief Charles Bordeleau, who lives on the razor’s edge, balancing his role as a leader of the troubled force with his power to turn the tide.
For more than a decade, Farhia Ahmed, 37, had adopted the stance of an informed but quiet public servant. Although Muslim, she married into a Catholic family. A mother of four children, her days were more consumed by her children’s schedules than social activism. She had a secure job and, as a policy adviser, clung tightly to bureaucratic neutrality. She may have felt strongly about an issue, but you wouldn’t hear her give an opinion. Then Abdirahman Abdi happened. After watching videos of Abdi’s fatal arrest, Ahmed could no longer stand on the sidelines. At a standing-room-only community meeting of Somali Canadians who gathered to form a new advocacy group, Ahmed raised her hand and volunteered to raise her voice so that Abdi’s family could be heard.
“I have a high standard for our public institutions and for people in uniform. I’m a public servant. I’ve come to respect them a lot. But what I saw was pure vile and completely unexpected. And the fact that there was a debate about the circumstances upset me.
This is an injustice to all of the community, because we are all taxpayers in this city. Everybody has the responsibility to have a voice, through their elected officials, to say or do something when something like this occurs. They are sworn officers. This is a breach in trust — because you swear to serve and protect, and that’s the opposite of what took place here.
The first few months [after Abdi’s death] provided me a wake-up call that I never thought I needed. There is a sense of fear when you see an officer behave in such a way that seems targeted. I’m part of that target. I’m clearly a Black woman. That could be me. That could be my brother.
I don’t think the police force is racist, but it allows racist individuals and actions to reign. And there needs to be a hard line, zero tolerance with these issues. Some things have been revealed since Abdi’s death. One of the officers in question, it’s not the first time he was roughing up a Black male Somali person. His judgment has been called into question by a judge in a court of law.
I think it’s a problem with these officers, and the problem with the establishment is allowing officers like this to continue without reprimand.
There is a verse in the Quran that says ‘Stand firmly for justice, as witness to God, even against yourselves.’ It means there is a recognition that human beings make mistakes and we need to be called to account for them, even if it is against ourselves, so there’s an opportunity to make it right.”
Raphael Desil, 35, works in an auto-body shop by day. By night, he’s better known as Moun Fou, a hip-hop artist who raps about his past as a drug dealer. Through his music, he hopes to deter young people from entering “the game.” One of his most recent videos, for the song “Summertime,” was shot in Lowertown, where he “made his first $10,000.” As an ex-con who has done his time and is trying to move on with his life, Desil feels he’s treated like an offender when he interacts with police — and he has figured out a clever way of protecting himself: he calls the cops to protect himself from the cops.
“When you live in the projects, in low-income housing, you see the ones rising up and making fast money, and you start to shift to be like them.
Cocaine and crack cocaine, that’s what’s sold by Black people in the poorer areas of the city. The people who use that product, they’re stressed, and you have to be able to deal with that. The crackheads will knock on your door at 3 a.m. They’re heavy characters, and you have to roll with a certain intensity.
I was kind of a flashy drug dealer — I had the gold teeth and the chains.
I respected the rules. I never double-crossed anybody. Never shorted anybody, and I never ratted anybody to get less time. I could have got free if I gave up someone with a gun.
My mom told me, ‘When I heard you got arrested, my heart stopped worrying because I knew you were safe. I knew you could fight, you’re six-foot-one. There are no guns, no knives.’ I did six months here, four months there. I got a long rap sheet, but it’s just drugs, just possession and trafficking. I never had violence. The longest time I did was 23 months. Good thing about it was I got my high school diploma in jail.
I got out in 2012. Now I work at an auto-body shop on Innes Road. We’re working on refurbishing OC Transpo buses.
I’ve been to at least 20 funerals. I’ve seen a lot of young kids go. Some of them didn’t respect the rules, got involved at the wrong time. Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it’s friends against friends. I had to moonwalk myself out of that.
I want to tell people to get out of the cycle. There are certain women who’ve been in my life who became addicts — and I was the one selling to them. That hurts.
But since I’m out, it’s like police treat me even worse. When you’re a Black male and you’re walking alone, running into a cop who wants to check you … that’s the scariest thing. ‘Why do you want to talk to a Black guy walking down the road? You’re searching for more trouble than me.’
I have to know every reason why they want my name. To give my name to a cop, I know he’s going to type it in and see who I am. No positivity will come out in his computer. That’s what scares me, even though my last conviction was in 2009.
As soon as they see that, they’ll treat me differently. Their hands will be on their holster. I can see the whole transformation before they come out of the car. I can see their training. I can see how they double-check their guns while they get out of the car. They’re going to think I’m just a gangster.
So when I get stopped when I’m by myself on the street, I call 911 and tell the operator, ‘I feel like I’m in danger.’ I give my intersection and another cop shows up and I’m like ‘You better protect me. I don’t want [the other cop] to shoot me because I’m a known drug dealer.’
They already killed an unarmed Black man. And who killed him? It was a guy who worked in the DART [anti-gang] unit.
They [cops] don’t see me as the person that I am right now. Maybe in 20 years they might believe.”
Ketcia Peters, 37 , knows what it’s like to live on the wrong side of the tracks. As a teenager, she lived in community housing on Ritchie Street and was evicted when her mother was unable to pay the bills. Peters eventually became the parental figure, helping to raise her sisters while juggling school and waitressing. Her reward came years later in the form of a diploma from the business administration program at Algonquin College. Now, the proud wife and mother and owner of her own company is also the new citizen co-chair of the Community and Police Action Committee (COMPAC). It’s her job to break down walls between police and the public, and to make sure visible minorities are respected for who they are, not judged by where they’re from.
As the city comes to grips with the findings of the recent Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project, which shows Middle Eastern and Black drivers are stopped disproportionately by police, Peters will help everyone recognize racial profiling and how to change police culture.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done for [visible minorities] to feel police are there to serve them, to help them.
A Black person in social housing is treated much differently. If a police officer is patrolling around Orleans, where there is a concentrated group of Haitian professionals living, [the police] will explain why they’re pulling them over and will respect their rights as citizens and give them the info they need. But that same officer could be patrolling the Vanier area and they just drive by and park their car next to a young person wearing a certain type of clothing, with hair worn a certain way, and it would be different.
This is the testimony I hear: “I was just in my car eating pizza, waiting to go into the barbershop where I work, but the police said, ‘If I were to shake you down, would I find drugs, would I find weed?’ ” Their demeanour is offensive and accusatory.
These individuals feel like their rights are violated. They are apparently being stopped and questioned for no reason.
I’ve seen how police officers interact with a Black male who fits their stereotype of a bad person. They’re not involved in criminal activity, but they live in a certain neighbourhood or they know a certain person because they grew up with them. Some of them are going to school, working toward good jobs, but they’ll be treated like criminals because they wear a certain type of clothes or wear their hair a certain way.
It’s racial profiling.
When the [Traffic Stop Race Data Collection] project came out — it was analyzed by an objective third party, York University — it gave a result about the overrepresentation of minorities during traffic stops. It’s written in black and white. And the refusal of police to admit that’s racial profiling is a big gap. We need to start admitting things in order to create change. If you don’t recognize the problem, you can’t fix it.
We have questions about the type of officers who would come to the calls. The officers who came to the [Abdi 911] call didn’t know the neighbourhood. That’s why community police officers are really important. They would know the community. They would know he was suffering from mental-health issues.
I think there needs to be a change in the police culture — the way they think, the way they see the community. They’re involved in the worst scenarios in life, so they may have a certain prejudice when they go to work. For example, when there’s shootings, increasing patrols may not be the answer.
When there is over-patrolling of one area, those communities feel like they are being occupied.
How can you trust if you’re occupied?”
It was a racist Facebook post linked to an Ottawa Citizen story that Veldon Coburn, 39, couldn’t ignore. It was posted by Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar, an Ottawa police officer who suggested the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook could have been “suicide, accidental, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned” because “much of the Aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being drug abusers.” Coburn wasn’t just offended, he was deeply wounded. Pootoogook was also the biological mother of his adopted daughter, Napachie, the four-year-old sitting quietly on his lap.
“She was in the back of my mind as I thought, should I say something? If she [Napachie] would look back and knew I saw the article and said nothing? Would she ask, ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’
It was more painful because it was a police officer. I hold police officers in high regard. It wasn’t someone talking from a bar stool that you could walk away from and say ‘racist idiot.’ And it was an open case too. Annie had a troubled existence, and I thought, these are the people who are supposed to protect her?
So on a Sunday night at 10:30 p.m., I sent an email to [OPS chief Charles] Bordeleau. I copied Mayor [Jim] Watson, MPs Jody Wilson-Raybould and Carolyn Bennett, Ottawa Citizen reporter Joanne Laucius, and Jorge Barrera of the Aboriginal People’s Television Network. To his credit, the chief emailed me back within an hour, and I thought, wow, he takes it seriously. Then he floundered.
I heard Chief Bordeleau on CBC’s Ottawa Morning, and he refused to call the comments racist — instead he used the term ‘racial undertones.’ I think Charles Bordeleau is an honourable man. He holds a distinguished position in his hometown, but this can tarnish his legacy.
We trust you [the chief] to say the words. To say what it is. We trust you to recognize these things. When hate crimes are motivated by hate and racism, if you can’t identify it in this situation, how can we trust you to identify Joe Blow who pulls a hate crime against Muslims or any other visible minority? That shakes my foundation and my trust.
But I don’t think Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar is a racist. I think he’s a cop who made racist comments.
At his first hearing, he pleads guilty right away. He immediately acknowledged the wrong committed and made a heartfelt apology to Annie Pootoogook and her family. I never had anyone apologize to me before. It takes a great deal of humility and a big person on such a public scale to apologize. You don’t hear that from police officers. You don’t hear contrition.
There is a cautionary tale to this. When I see these ideas tossed around about reconciliation these days, the victims say, ‘Account for your sins, take your lashings.’ But if you’re going to demand a restorative system of justice, there’s also an onus on you. It’s not a sole burden.
I did write him [Hrnchiar] a letter and told him I wanted to work toward this. Chris and I both recognize that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are going to have to work together if we want things to be different for our children and grandchildren. That’s what reconciliation will take, and I think he, as a police officer, can play an important role in that process.
I was listening to a song recently by the band U2. It was the song ‘One.’ There is a line in that song that conjured some imagery for me about the increased burden of the pain of seeking forgiveness when it is made difficult to obtain: ‘You ask me to enter but then you make me crawl.’
I’m not going to do that to Chris. I’m not going to make him crawl for our grandchildren and for our future.”
In 2012, when Charles Bordeleau was sworn in as the chief of the Ottawa Police Service at city hall, crown attorneys in the courtroom next door were outlining their murder case against a cop killer. The murder of Const. Eric Czapnik in 2009 had brought into sharp focus the danger of policing, and the community responded with an overwhelming outpouring of gratitude. Five years after being sworn in, things have changed. The wave of public support is receding after another death — and this time, police might be culpable.
Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali Canadian, died last July after being cornered by police at the entrance to his Hilda Street apartment building. Residents of the building say they saw Abdi pepper-sprayed and beaten with batons. One says she watched his mother wailing from behind the glass lobby doors, her son lying motionless on the concrete. What began as a police response to a 911 call about a man groping a woman inside a coffee shop had ended with Abdi handcuffed with his arms behind his back. He was bleeding, and his shirt was stained with blood. Two constables crouched over him — the one with the tattoo sleeve worked with the Guns and Gangs Unit.
“I feel terrible for the family. I feel terrible for the officers involved. Nobody comes to work wanting this to happen,” says Bordeleau, who has been walking on eggshells since, trying to respond to public anger without losing the confidence of his team.
That anger drove several hundred protesters to march to the Elgin Street police headquarters in the week after Abdi’s death to demand accountability.
“My officers need support through that difficult event. It’s tough for officers to be at a demonstration and to be called murderers,” said Bordeleau without hesitation. “My priority is to let my officers know they are being supported.”
With the news that Cst. Daniel Montsion has been charged with manslaughter following Abdi’s death, Bordeleau must now address concerns without having the full picture of what went wrong during the arrest. But that limitation hasn’t stopped public pressure to call out the perceived racist nature of the arrest — a step Bordeleau has so far refused to take: “Was race a factor? I don’t know. I don’t have the facts. But I acknowledge the event caused racial tensions.”
To ease those tensions, OPS created a five-member liaison team to repair relationships with the city’s community of visible minorities. In a move that was criticized by some within his own force, Bordeleau also personally intervened to hire a Somali Canadian the day after Abdi’s death. The force now has six Somali officers, but the demographics of the OPS still falls short of reflecting the city’s population: a census conducted in 2012 found that only 8.4 percent of sworn officers were visible minorities.
Along with committing to hiring diversity, Bordeleau has also ordered a race audit of the OPS to analyze the barriers visible-minority officers face in the workplace. The chief says he will make the results of the audit public when it’s completed.
Abdi’s brutal death brought to the surface racial tensions that have long been percolating in the city. A human-rights complaint filed in 2005 led to a comprehensive study of traffic stops made by Ottawa police. The study, released last fall, analyzed more than 80,000 traffic stops and found that Middle Eastern and Black drivers were disproportionately stopped. Now that approximately 1,400 OPS officers have gone through mandated street-check training, Bordeleau expects a drop in complaints about arbitrary carding and traffic stops.
Much of the racial tension that has arisen over the past year stems from the perception that the force is slow or unwilling to address racism. That was most glaring in Bordeleau’s handling of an officer’s Facebook comments about the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook.
In an interview with CBC’s Ottawa Morning, the chief initially called the comments, which implied that Indigenous people were prone to drunkenness or suicide, “inappropriate” and “biased” and twisted himself into a rhetorical knot to avoid using the word “racist.” He would finally call Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar’s comment racist — two weeks later in an interview with the Aboriginal People’s Television Network. But by then the damage was done.
“I regret that interview with CBC that morning. If I were to do it again, I would have come out sooner and called it what it was,” Bordeleau said in an interview.
The acknowledgement that racism was present in that Facebook post holds power. It has already set the groundwork for reconciliation with the city’s Inuit community.
Racism may be impossible to prove in Abdi’s death. How the chief responds to the results of the SIU investigation into Abdi’s death, what actions he takes, and what words he chooses might determine his legacy — and will certainly affect the way minority communities, and those who care about equality, feel about their city.