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Years ago, probably 20, I was part of the police chief’s youth advisory council in Toronto. It was a diverse group of engaged young people (I wish I had kept in touch with any of them, but I’m terrible at that) who met monthly with the Chief, David Boothby at the time, to discuss how the force could better its relations with youth and especially diverse youth.We discussed hiring practices, community outreach and some issues around enforcement.

One day we went to the marine unit for a tour and a boat ride, a nice photo op for the chief. I have the picture somewhere but never look at it and never will. It was there that he asked me how the police could better serve Indigenous people. He wanted to hire more Indigenous officers and was pushing the idea of the salary and benefits as being the major attraction.

So he asked me what I thought. I told him a good job with benefits is important, but that until real trust has been built it wouldn’t matter. I told him that Indigenous people fear the police because of many instances of abuse and the feeling that it was an institution designed to oppress them. He told me that wasn’t true. I told him their actions say something different. And that was that.

It was only a few weeks later, walking with my then girlfriend (and future and present wife) late at night on Adelaide outside her apartment that the cruiser pulled up beside us. They shone the spotlight on me and ordered me to face the wall. They kept the spotlight on me as they asked my wife if she was okay. I was dressed in a hoodie and had my traditional hair down my back. They asked her a few more questions: Did she know me? Where were we going? Before they finally left.

She’s never forgotten that night and what that it felt like. She had never experienced anything like that in her life. I told her then as I do now, that it wasn’t the first time….and it wasn’t the last. She still distrusts police to this day because of that one night.

It mostly stopped after I cut my hair off but I have never lost that instinct or fear. When I hear sirens and I’m walking at night, I know there’s a chance their coming for me again. And that it could end differently this time.

And I got off exceedingly luckily. If she hadn’t been there, what could have happened? If there wasn’t a white witness what would have happened?

This was in Toronto, the great multicultural mecca of Canada. And I’m sure it will happen to someone else tonight. I worry that it will one day happen to my son, who like me is going to be a very large Ojibwe man, and that he won’t get off easy like I did.

So when people say that what BLMTO did at Pride was wrong or “extortion,” I remember that night and the many other encounters I’ve had with police just because I’m a large Ojibwe and once had my traditional hair. And I wish I had been there to sit with them, as I stand with them now. And I wish I’d said more to the police chief, that I’d been even more forceful. For the son and daughter I now have, and for the all sons and daughters out there, that will have that spotlight on them in the coming days, weeks, months and years. 

I’m sorry I didn’t do more and I work everyday to use my voice and platform to change things for my people and others. Idle No More indeed.

Jesse Wente is an Ojibwe broadcaster, curator and public speaker from Toronto.

This article first appeared as a post on Jesse’s Facebook page.  

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