Dean Gladue says he never experienced racism until joining the RCMP.
The 26-year veteran began his career with the force in 1989 as special constable, a role assigned to police First Nations reserves. It was a rank below his non-Indigenous colleagues, who were better paid.
It felt like he was “a second-class citizen,” he said in a recent interview.
After the program shuttered, Gladue transitioned into a job as a regular constable. The 25-year-old Metis man would then overhear offhand comments around the office, with ones like how a “dead Indian’s a good Indian” later brushed off as stress when raised to a supervisor.
“You just take the beating. You just take it,” he said.
“Then as you get older, you start to realize, ‘Why did I do that’?”
Gladue had been interested in policing since childhood, and saw the RCMP as a good career, especially once his pay improved. He also knew he could retire before 50, which he did.
And he enjoyed the work, particularly after joining British Columbia’s drugs and organized crime unit, where he focused on education.
Despite there having been a time when he would convince others not to join, Gladue, now a leader with Metis Nation British Columbia, has come to feel the opposite — especially when it comes to prospective Indigenous officers.
“If we as Indigenous people want to make change in Canada, we have to be on the inside,” he said. “We cannot run from it.”
That representation remains a challenge for the RCMP, which marks its 150th anniversary on Tuesday. It is struggling with the recruitment, but also the retention, of Indigenous members.
Roughly seven per cent of its members identify as Indigenous, according to the force’s diversity statistics from 2020, down from almost eight per cent a decade earlier.
Nadine Huggins, the Mounties’ chief human resources officer, chalked some of that up to how it used to graduate Indigenous-only classes like the one that Gladue first belonged to, and whose members have now hit retirement.
She said the RCMP hopes to see cohorts of between eight to 16 Indigenous cadets learning together, with groups staggered over time to avoid a similar situation.
Huggins could not say how many are in a typical troop, but an internal report shows the number of Indigenous candidates enrolling at Depot, the RCMP cadet academy in Regina, dropped to four per cent from six per cent, as of 2020.
“We’re not a popular profession right now,” said Huggins.
“The murder of George Floyd has really had a ripple effect for this generation, and the appetite for policing writ large,” she said of the 2020 killing of a Black man by a Minneapolis police officer, which sparked worldwide protests.
“I don’t want to pretend either … that there aren’t challenges in our organization,” she added.
“There are challenges in our organization and there (are) challenges that we are addressing very deliberately and working to prevent on an ongoing basis.”
Reconciliation remains one of them. An internal review of the force’s efforts from 2021 said while it has taken steps to address injustices, the role it played in colonialism still looms large.
Growing up in Saskatchewan, Heather Bear said she learned there were two justice systems: One for Indigenous people, and one for those who were white.
Bear, a vice-chief with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said when a First Nation needs the RCMP, it isn’t there.
But it always seems to be there for writing speeding tickets, or when someone misses a court date, she said.
She pointed to last September’s mass stabbing rampage on James Smith Cree Nation, where it took nearly 40 minutes after the first 911 call for officers to arrive.
They were dispatched from a detachment more than a 30 minutes away — a distance that underscores the realities of the contract policing model that spans the country’s rural and Indigenous communities, made worse by widespread vacancies.
Bear said cases of officers using excessive force and not properly investigating the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls has only exacerbated the distrust towards the RCMP.
“I really don’t think they understand or know the degree of damage.”
Having more Indigenous officers “would do a world of good,” Bear said, but she cautioned that it would not solve the problem of the system police work in.
Ralph Cardinal, shown in a handout photo, served just under 30 years with the RCMP and says he survived his many years policing Indigenous communities on the front line through his ability to speak Cree. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
Ralph Cardinal spent just shy of 30 years with the force. The Cree man said he felt pigeonholed into policing predominantly Indigenous communities, which, depending on the area, made for years of high-risk work.
“It’s a turnoff job when you’re on always on the front line dealing with everything possible that nobody wants to see.”
Like Gladue, Cardinal first graduated as a special constable. After seven years on the job, he returned to Depot for training to gain his constable status.
He finally traded in his brown uniform for the iconic Red Serge.
“What are they going to teach me that I’ve (not) already taught myself?” he said.
Cardinal said he had aspired to move around the organization and work in larger centres, but found himself unable to.
There was an attitude that non-Indigenous members did not want to police First Nations, he said, and he felt he needed to work “three, four or five times harder” to earn his rank as sergeant.
The RCMP’s 2021 reconciliation review found a lack of career opportunities and mental health contributed to its drop in Indigenous members.
Cardinal did love his work. He saw the impact he had in Indigenous communities, visiting with the elders over tea. He credited his ability to speak Cree as helping him survive his decades on the front line.
“It calms people down.”
He said he believes the organization is missing chances to recruit more Indigenous officers and is also failing to recognize those who have served.
In his home community of Bigstone Cree Nation, located about 320 kilometres north of Edmonton, he said they saw five RCMP members retire in the past decade — and get “no recognition.”
Huggins said the force is working to attract more Indigenous recruits and offers a fund for those in remote areas to travel to receive their assessments.
She also said it plans to better target those between the ages of 19 and 24 — a demographic she points out that many Indigenous people belong to as one of the country’s fastest-growing populations.
Cpl. Maureen Greyeyes-Brant has made a career of trying to bring more people like that in the door.
As a graduate of the Mounties’ Indigenous pre-cadet training program, which every year sends a cohort of young people to depot for several weeks, she serves as its co-ordinator.
The hope is after their experience they consider a career with the RCMP, but not all do. Of the 30 candidates who graduated last year, 18 expressed an interest and some remain in the application process, but so far only three have been accepted into depot, according to Greyeyes-Brant.
She said the demands of policing mean it is not for everyone, but noted that many also come with their own perceptions of the RCMP, which she herself has faced over her 22 years with the force.
Greyeyes-Brant, a Plains Cree woman from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, recalled a man once yelling at her while she was at a recruiting event, calling her a traitor.
Her answer to him: “You can stand outside the building and yell and scream that things need to be changed.
“But I’m the one inside.”
Greyeyes-Brant acknowledged the RCMP’s Indigenous representation has dwindled and said she can understand the reasons some have left.
“But for myself, I’m staying in to fight the good fight,” she said.
“I’m staying in to be heard.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2023.