Coded language from police officers is racism
What is worse than a racist?
A racist with a badge and a gun.
Earlier this month, a video of Ottawa police officer Paul Heffler, recorded in 2019, exploded on the internet.
In the video, Heffler said, “Our days are done, the White man’s days are done.” The other two officers with him seem to agree, and then Hefller continued, “Well, it’s true, the uh, even the population of North America. [White people] are the minority, I think, at this point.”
Instead of challenging these comments, one of the other officers said, “If you put all the different groups together, yeah, I think we’re the minority.”
Let’s start with the obvious. Heffler’s demographic information is wrong.
According to the 2016 Canadian census, about seven million Canadians were identified as members of a visible minority group. Using simple math, this means that almost 73 per cent of the Canadian population is white.
White people are not in the minority, and the white man’s day is not done — far from it. In North America, we live in a white, white world.
Being white is not any type of disadvantage.
A 2019 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that even though racialized people are more likely to be actively seeking work than non-racialized populations, visible minorities suffer disproportionately high unemployment rates. When visible minorities do find work, they only earn 78 cents for every dollar a white worker earns.
As detailed by expert Dr. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, racism is alive and well in the justice system. Black people, especially Black males, are far more likely to be stopped by the police, even when they have not committed any crime. Black offenders are more likely to be charged with offences and are more likely to be incarcerated than white offenders.
In the Ottawa video, Heffler continued his racist comments saying, “You go to Toronto, and every couple you see walking by is a mixed couple…White-Asian, White-East Indian. I told my son he can find a Chinese or an Asian girlfriend if he wants to stay in a mixed … Get your foot in the door.”
After reports of the video came out, Heffler came to his defence and doubled down on his comments, saying, “I’m embarrassed by the way it has been painted, but I’m not embarrassed by what I said. Because I know what we were saying was a simple, objective analysis of something.”
Heffler says he was only discussing demographic information reported in a CBC news story. He did not provide any other details, so it is impossible to know what news report he was referring to — a quick internet search of CBC articles from 2019 did not help locate any potential articles.
However, in 2019 the New York Times published an article about the racist “great replacement” theory — a conspiracy theory that warns of white genocide.
The New Zealand mosque shooter, the El Paso mass murderer and the white nationalists who chanted “You will not replace us” during the 2017 Charlottesville riots all embraced the racist theory that white people will soon be “replaced” by non-whites due to lower birth rates. It all sounds remarkably similar to Heffler’s comments.
The idea that while on active duty, Heffler was simply engaged in good faith, casual, but an ill-informed conversation on general demographics is ridiculous.
Heffler’s words have long been recognized as the coded language of racism.
And when it comes to acknowledging racism in Canada, the problems run deeper than Constable Paul Heffler.
Last year, Doug Ford quickly backtracked after saying that Canada doesn’t have the same “systemic, deep roots” of racism that the United States does. And after expressing solidarity with protesters, Quebec premier François Legault said there was no systemic discrimination in his province.
And in the face of multiple allegations of RCMP abuses against Indigenous people, Alberta RCMP deputy commissioner Curtis Zablocki denied any systemic racism in policing in Canada.
Most recently, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC), the RCMP oversight body, called out Canada’s national police force for their conduct towards the mother of Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man who an Alberta farmer killed. The CRCC concluded that the RCMP conduct was discriminatory towards the grieving mother based on her race or national or ethnic origin.
To its credit, RCMP leadership accepted the findings of the CRCC. But the rank and file membership, the actual police officers who interact with the public, and their union, have rejected the report, calling it biased.
But that is not unusual. In Ottawa, where officer Heffler works, Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly acknowledged systemic racism. But rank and file officers continue to deny its existence, with Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof calling the idea of systemic racism as “baseless conclusions.”
Skof, like too many police officers, does not believe there is systemic racism in the Ottawa Police Service.
As a society, perhaps foolishly, we have chosen to give our police forces incredible powers. We trust the police with the ability to arrest and detain. We grant the police extraordinary powers of search and seizure. We authorize them to carry weapons and even allow them to employ deadly force when necessary.
The danger posed by racism in our police forces is real, and there cannot be any tolerance for hate or bias in policing.
The first step to reforming our police force should be simple: cops who make racist comments or parrot white nationalist talking points should not be police officers.
This opinion first appeared in Canadian Lawyer