Sensitization sessions for Montreal police

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“Where are you from?”

With those four simple words, Montreal police officers can learn to build bridges and avoid confrontation when coming in contact with members of the city’s Aboriginal community, which now numbers more than 26,000.

That is the hope and objective of Vicky Boldo, who works with the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy NETWORK on implementing its recent agreement with the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM), including the roll out of cultural sensitization workshops with SPVM officers.

Signed in June 2015, the collaborative agreement is designed to achieve four goals, including normalizing a meaningful partnership between willing Aboriginal community organizations and the SPVM, increase education and cultural awareness among members of the police service, develop and implement prevention programs for Aboriginal people, as well as protocols and procedures for when an Aboriginal woman is reported missing.

Boldo has been kept busy with outreach to the city’s police officers since taking on the task in early 2016.

Brief sensitization sessions started in October 2015, with facilitators including Wayne Robinson of Native Montreal visiting police stations at shift change.


“At first those sessions were meant to be 20 minutes long, giving (officers) an overview of the services available for the Aboriginal community,” explained Boldo, who previously worked as a clinical coordinator at the McGill University Health Centre. “Since then, we have approached about 900 police officers over 70 sessions, and I think it is about 30 or 40 stations we have visited.”

In those early sessions, Boldo would give some personal testimony and discuss her own healing journey, and discuss why she does what she does, and why she is passionate about it.

Attending officers were also provided with pocket-sized maps outlining the different missions available in Montreal, and service centres where they can reach out for more information, find out about additional available resources, as well as where they can bring people in crisis, and under what conditions.

While these early sessions have proven largely effective, Boldo and her team have recently embarked on a larger scale program designed to bring a stronger message to even more officers.

In early February, a pilot session was quietly held at St. John the Evangelist Church in downtown Montreal with 120 SPVM officers in attendance.

Unlike earlier events, this session was several hours in length and featured a diverse group of presenters.

“For a year and a half we have been trying to pull this together,” continued Boldo. “We negotiated a lot with the police, getting resistance but standing firm that we really wanted to use an Indigenous pedagogy (in the sensitization sessions).”

Unlike the typical PowerPoint presentations most officers are accustomed to, Boldo’s team presented a bold plan for connecting with officers by using experiential exercises and the testimony of various individuals coming from various Aboriginal backgrounds.

“Often, (Aboriginals) are thrown into the same bucket by police who don’t know they have different ways of practicing or thinking. One of the simple things is the idea of community. But people maintain the stereotypical stuff; that (Aboriginal) people run away because of all the bad reasons,” said Boldo.

“The marginal people that police deal with in the city are just a fraction of the 26,000 who live in Montreal, and the majority are just living our lives. But the police are dealing with those who are in their pain, at their most vulnerable.”

The experiential exercise at the recent event came primarily in the form of a blanket exercise. Addressing the impact of centuries of colonization on Aboriginal people, the blankets help participants understand history since first contact, including dispossession of Native lands, the intervention of government in Aboriginal communities, and more recent crises such as residential schools.

“This is what sensitizes (attendees), and it brings some of the human components into it, and talks about compassion,” said Boldo.

Kahnawake Peacekeepers

Joining Boldo in what she expects to be the first of 11 expanded sensitization sessions to be held this year was Kenneth Deer, a traditional Elder from the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake, and Inuit throat singer Nina Segalowitz, who works as a caseworker with the Women’s Centre of Montreal.

Two members of the Kahnawake Mohawk Peacekeepers were on hand to share background on the origin of their police service, and discuss some of the unique challenges faced by police officers working on Native territory.

Eeyou Istchee’s own John Bosum closed the session by giving his personal testimony about his residential school experiences, and the challenges he faced coming to terms with them.

“It is about forgiveness,” he explained to the hushed room.

A man of deep faith, who was part of the earlier, smaller sessions with SPVM officers, Bosum spoke about his own healing journey, and the importance of family and community to those still working to overcome past pain.

If there were any concerns about the impact the speakers were having on the officers in attendance, they were quickly allayed by the standing ovation received by Bosum as he finished speaking, and the numerous attendees seeking to connect with him after the session.

Boldo is also hopeful that the dialogue nurtured during sensitization sessions can affect positive change.

“You are the change and really have the opportunity to do something good here,” said Boldo, in reference to the officers in attendance. “We are letting them know and helping them understand that in the communities there are no addresses, no tickets, no courthouse.”

Boldo uses the example of a young Aboriginal person being questioned by police, who says he is staying with a cousin across from the métro station beside the grocery store. He is not being evasive, but rather falling back on a common use of landmarks to communicate where he lives.

Boldo also encourages officers to understand how to use a simple approach to develop communication with members of Aboriginal communities.

“If it’s not a serious crime, and you need to speak with people, and they are sitting in a circle, keep them in a circle. Chances are you’ll get more information if you leave people in a circle. If you pull someone out, you are cutting off communication.”

Understanding why individuals, especially the most vulnerable, are in the tough situations they find themselves in is also important.

“Police wonder why (homeless Natives) don’t just go home. But it is not as simple as that. When people run away, they don’t escape the thing they are running away from.”

But Boldo also recognizes the efforts made by some SPVM officers she has encountered, who tell her they are not giving out tickets. Instead, they hit the streets armed with gift cards from restaurants and coffee shops.

According to Boldo, “Making those human connections sometimes is all that is needed to disarm a situation.”

And when they encounter an Aboriginal person, they ask, “Where are you from?”

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