Colonial Conduct, Police Brutality and Aboriginal Youth
An Interview with an Indigenous Activist
By Aaron Mercredi
It is a fact that today in Canada today, Indigenous people are survivors of genocide and live in defiance of Canadaís attempts to extinguish us. This, however, has not changed Canadaís approach to its ĎIndigenous problemí, and because of this, Indigenous people suffer at the hands of the Canadian institution disproportionately to non-Indigenous people in this country. Today, we are the largest prisoner population in the country. According to the One-Day Snapshot of Aboriginal Youth in Custody, which was put together by the Department of Justice of Canada in 2004, while Aboriginal youth comprised approximately 5% of the Canadian population, 33% of youth in custody were Aboriginal. This is no coincidence if you look at the long history of abuse against Indigenous people and the systemic racism in the colonial justice system that exists in Canada.
An Interview with Jerrilyn Webster, a community activist
FTT: Can you tell us who you are, where youíre from and what you do?
JW: My name is Jerrilyn Webster. My Indian name is Aquashems. Also, Iím a hip hop artist. My MC name is JB The First Lady. Who I am? Who do I represent? Iím also from the Nuxalk Nation, the Cayuga Nation and Mohawk Nation. What do I do? Iím a youth advocate. I advocate for youth voice. I advocate for youth to express themselves through creative ways such as music, art, visual art, performance art. Any kind of art. I currently work at Knowledgeable Aboriginal Youth Association (KAYA) as the Street Team Outreach Coordinator. So, with all that said, Iím a director, Iím a producer of theatre, performance, music and hip hop artists. Yeah, thatís about it.
FTT: This summer, you were the victim of police harassment and abuse. Could you explain what happened?
JW: This isnít an isolated incident. This is not the only incident that has happened to myself or my peers who were involved. Just to start off with that. Because this happens on a regular basis every single day. So since that incident of harassment by police, we filed a complaint. The complaint is under investigation now. It has been at least three months since weíve been empowering ourselves. And weíve heard about a few more instances after that where young people have been beaten up, harassed, or racially profiled. You know, I can think of at least four incidents off the top of my head, because I am an outreach worker, that young people have been beaten up because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, because theyíre Native, right?
FTT: How do you think this relates to the history of discrimination and racial profiling against Native people and what exists today all over Canada? The situation where Native people are totally targeted systemically by the police and the justice system?
JW: Well, I think that everything is a learnt behaviour. The cops, or the new recruits, they have this stereotype in their head already, this assumption that Native people are a certain way. And where does that come from? That comes from the media. It comes from the racism that still exists against Native people, especially here in Canada. You know, on a regular basis. I can really feel it when Iím on a bus or on a street. You know, Johns follow me, thinking that Iím a sex trade worker. Police follow me if Iím hanging out near a park, just like what happened that night. Or in grocery stores or in stores. I get followed on a regular basis. And that is a daily struggle. No one has to say anything, you can just feel it. But as far as the cops, theyíve been taught that. Because they donít know any better. I have compassion for them, as much as they hurt myself, and my peers, and my family. Even killed one of my family members because they beat them up so much. And I have compassion because they havenít been taught the right way. There are no teachings for them. And cops live in this subculture work environment and life where they are basically forced to think that way. And that is screwed up because they are peer-pressured, like a gang, and have to show their street cred. So, how do you get street cred? By racial profiling, to get those high numbers, the quota, you know? And I think thatís where it comes from.
FTT: What did you guys do to respond to the incident?
JW: Well, right after, we said that we wanted to (laughs) give thanks to that cop for showing us those lessons and showing the relationship between Native people and the police and where our society sits with Native people in respecting or acknowledging Native people. They donít. They donít even realize that this is Coast Salish territory, or what territory they are on. Or what the language is, or what the dances are. The community has heard about it because we filed a formal complaint with the Police Department. And they are doing an internal investigation, and we are just waiting to hear back about it. Also, through that, the community heard about it, and a bunch of different community members- people from UNYA, Justice for Girls, KAYA, said that we do need to raise awareness about police brutality and racial profiling. So, we decided to raise awareness by a reclamation of Commercial Drive. ĎTake back our streets! Take back our voices!í And how did we do that? We did that through our drums and through our songs. We had our elders there. And also we had a very pivotal point for healing by having a brush off ceremony at the site. So elders came and supported me and my other sisters in the brushing off ceremony and it really helped. And we reclaimed the song too. After that, we had the march, the reclamation. And we showed the Native community and the commercial drive community, or society, that our community as the Native community, we are not going to stand for brutality, abuse, racial profiling, harassment or police brutality, you know? And weíre going to empower ourselves through coming together and celebrating that, that we do have voices, that these are our streets. And it was so powerful. There were over 100 people there. People on the march started telling stories that had happened. And mind you, this is not the first time that I was harassed or racially profiled. This is about the 7th or 8th time that I can count of the many incidents that Iíve encountered. And Iím working hard for my community, hard for my peers and hard for my childrenís children. And itís not like Iím a criminal or trying to get in trouble with the police. But this happened. But this is the last time, I said. People need to be aware about what happens to me and what happens to my peers. Because thereís about 98% donít get out there: young kids getting beat up, because those kids donít know their rights. And it doesnít just happen to Native people. It happens to other communities: The Indo community, the Asian community, getting profiled because of their race, because of the colour of their skin. Itís other communities, and maybe just youth in general.
FTT: When things like this happen, why do you think it is important to bring people together, and mobilize to defend our rights?
JW: Well, I think it is so important that the community comes together. The only way we can make change is with the people. The people! It is not just one person. Itís not just one politician. It is not just one police officer to be a liaison between the VPD and the Native community. No, it goes to the people. That is the only way we can make change. And thatís why it is so important that we support our young people. And there are organizations out there, but the stories need to be told. And the stories arenít being told because when you make a complaint, itís not use friendly, its not people friendly. The process is too slow and there is no justice to it. There is absolutely no justice to making a complaint, I think. So, we decided that we needed to take other actions. So, is it through music, through art? After the march, we had a feast, a celebrationósalmonóand a hip hop show. So we had young people come out and speak truth through their music. That is what is so important and so amazing. I donít have to follow the system, you know? I am going around and Iím going to come through the back door with it, you know? And itís through the arts, through music, through my own expression. It is about healing. There needs to be accountability. I think that is what is most important, especially against young Native women. There is no accountability for the 500 missing women. There is no accountability for the cleansing of the Downtown Eastside for 2010. There is no accountability for that. There is no accountability for young people getting racially profiled on the streets. There is no accountability for the 50,000 missing kids at residential schools. That is learnt behaviour through the federal, through the provincial, through the city, right? Through the Chief of Police down to the new recruit. No accountability. Once there is, once they heal, and once they deal, then there can be some change. But we need to do it ourselves as Native people. And I think we are through marches. Take back our streets, take back our voices.
FTT: What next in this fight for justice?
JW: The only way to heal Is to deal Accountability is real And thatís what I give to everyone in their own lives cuz thatís the only way we can create change is if we change ourselves. And others will see that in ourselves and maybe they will follow by example. We all want to make change. We all want to make the world a safe place. Itís not like we do that on purpose. Also, I want the police to be more sensitive. I want the government to be more sensitive to what has happened to the Native people: the genocide. The ongoing genocide through addictions, through alcoholism, through abuse, through the police. I want them to be aware because they are being ignorant right now. I have to educate them. The youth have to educate them. They have to educate themselves, thatís what I want to say to the police. Educate yourself Ďcause youíre not educated right now.
FTT: Thanks a lot for the interview.