Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF) President David Chartrand has once again backed the settler colonial state rather than listening to his own people.
The Winnipeg Free Press March 13, 2021 print edition contained a full page ad commending the work of the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) and Chief of Police Danny Smyth, signed off by Chartrand claiming to be speaking on behalf of the Métis Nation.The MMF posted the ad to Instagram the same day, prompting an outcry from Métis citizens and allies, as well as a wave of criticism on social media.
A website called “Dear Métis Leaders” posted a statement calling for the abolition of the police. The recently formed grassroots Métis group Red River Echoes (RRE) also came out publicly against Chartrand’s endorsement of the police, declaring that “the MMF's statement goes against everything people have been fighting for when it comes to undoing the violence our people face at the hands of police.”
Rather than listening to members of the Métis Nation, Chartrand doubled down on his statements at the first ever MMF Annual General Assembly, telling critics to “go to hell.”
When faced with structural problems, it’s easier to deflect criticism by blaming individuals than to think about where the real problem lies. The MMF president is dismissing police violence as the error of individuals rather than symptomatic of the purpose of police: defending private property and furthering the interests of the state. This is consistent with neoliberalism, an ideology perpetuated by the settler state that overemphasizes the importance of the individual while disregarding the impacts of history and systemic injustices.
Contextualizing the history of policing in the homeland of the Metis Nation requires an examination of the origins of policing by colonial powers. As many are aware, today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) developed out of the Royal North-West Mounted Police, whose mandate was to clear the plains for capitalist development — violently displacing Indigenous peoples, including the Métis. This colonial police force was sent in to violently subjugate Métis resistance to dispossession, acting as a paramilitary force during the North West Resistance of 1885.
During the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, many members of the WPS went on strike in solidarity with the workers. In response, the mayor fired the entire force and replaced them with the “Special Police” force, made up of ex-military vigilantes recruited by the anti-labour Committee of One Thousand.
Throughout the 20th century, the WPS has continued a practice of racialized policing. On March 9, 1988, Winnipeg Const. Robert Cross fatally shot J.J. Harper after unjustly detaining him on the sidewalk. Cross was exonerated the day after the shooting. This incident, along with the belated trial for the murder of Helen Betty Osborne, sparked the launch of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in April 1988.
Chartrand claims the WPS has moved on from its troubled colonial past, stating that since the 1988 shooting of J.J. Harper, Indigenous-police relations have vastly improved. Evidence suggests otherwise. If anything, the new millennium brought with it intensified neoliberalism — quite literally turning the state into a weapon for the capitalist class, rolling back the welfare state in favour of the discipline of ‘the market,’ decimating the labour movement and so on — and a “tough on crime” attitude despite declining crime rates.
In November 2005, then-Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz launched “Operation Clean Sweep,” deploying increased police presence in the inner city, where the effects of colonialism, including poverty and joblessness, are most concentrated. Katz was inspired by New York City’s mayor at the time, none other than Rudy Giuliani, who instituted a zero-tolerance policing strategy in New York City.
In May 2006, the City of Winnipeg sponsored a $260-a-plate dinner with Giuliani as the keynote speaker. He reportedly told his audience that “Winnipeg can get rid of its image as a high-crime, rundown city by first cleansing the streets of aggressive panhandlers and squeegee kids.” Bolstered by Giuliani’s advice, the budget for Operation Clean Sweep increased by $5.5 million.
Since 2008, the WPS budget has almost doubled and now accounts for over a quarter of Winnipeg’s municipal budget. To compare, the police service accounts for about 10 per cent of Hamilton, Ontario’s municipal budget, a city of a comparable population size to Winnipeg. Edmonton, a city with a higher population than Winnipeg, spends just under 15 per cent of its total budget on their police service.
While the police budget — and in consequence, police power — has increased, police accountability hasn’t. The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba still isn’t holding officers to account. Starlight tours, violent wellness checks, and on-duty cops not wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic are all part of the WPS’s sordid past and present.
In 2020 alone, the WPS killed Stewart Andrews, Jason Collins and Eishia Hudson. No charges have been brought against any of the officers involved in these separate incidents, not even against those who murdered the unarmed 16-year-old Eishia last April.
Rather than investing in housing, employment opportunities, recreational facilities, and other strategies aimed at reducing poverty, increasing overall well-being, and preventing crime, the city continues to increase its police budget. This will undoubtedly contribute to increased interactions between Indigenous people and WPS officers further reproducing and perpetuating the colonial dynamic.
As such, history continues to repeat itself. As Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, who is Métis, stated in June 2020: “The bottom line is … there’s not a lot of change in the city of Winnipeg. We’ve had three shootings of young Indigenous people in the last six months and that’s unacceptable.”
When the violent actions of officers are isolated from their broader institutional and historical context, it is easy to make the convenient argument that these are simply a few bad individuals who need to be weeded out. This individualistic argument is the hallmark of neoliberalism: that all problems and solutions lie with the individual. But when the actions of police officers are placed within their historical and institutional context, it becomes abundantly clear that this colonial violence is not an anomaly, but intrinsic to the institution of policing.
Pro-cop, pro-settler or both?
Chartrand’s history of gaffes suggests some underlying political attitudes that skew towards formalism, respectability politics, and entrenched narratives around nominal self-determination that leave settler colonialism and capitalism completely untouched.
The late Métis Marxist scholar Howard Adams warned in the 1990s that the language of self-government and even the structures developed and accepted by the state, such as the MMF, could only be a mirage of self-determination: “We must be cautious. Colonialism today has become technologically perfected and immensely versatile. The metropolis can exploit effectively and rapidly its internal colonies (i.e., reserves and Métis colonies,)” writes Adams. “In my assessment, self-government does not constitute any change for Aboriginal people in terms of autonomy or sovereignty. Although it may be given extensive consideration in terms of rhetoric, in the end it is still colonialism.”
What matters is changing the objective conditions, those that give rise to exploitation and oppression — if they remain unchanged, Indigenous organizations with state support develop a specific comprador character, meaning they pursue the interests of imperialists or colonizers rather than authentic national development and self-determination. Possessing this specific consciousness becomes a prerequisite for leadership, and the path to leadership includes developing it.
These comprador leaders do not pursue ‘true’ development, but rather capitalist development compatible within the existing capitalist, settler colony. This neocolonial entanglement promises little in the way of meaningful self-determination, but offers a lot to those who wish to enter the ranks of the exploiters.
Given all of this, it is no surprise then that the MMF president often sides with settler colonial forces like the RCMP and WPS. Nor is it surprising that the MMF has interests in the expansion of the oil and gas industry, around which the question of Indigenous sovereignty is most pressing, and in which important contests between traditional governance structures, like the hereditary chiefs of the nations of Wet’suwet’en on one hand and Indian Act chiefs and councils on the other, have played out.
Also notable in recent memory is the slew of statements and op-eds Chartrand penned amid the upsurge in Indigenous resistance against the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory. For example, in a February 2020 op-ed for the National Post, against the backdrop of a ground invasion of the RCMP into Wet’suwet’en territory against completely unarmed civilians, Chartrand raised questions about the validity of the cause of the land defenders and their allies. Defending the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory, Chartrand’s primary concern was for ‘development.’ According to his op-ed, the pipeline would bring “unprecedented” prosperity to people who have never seen it before.
Destruction of the land, even in the name of national development (which this is not - it’s settler development) is destruction of the land nevertheless. This is to say nothing of how silly it is to predicate development and ‘prosperity’ on a dying industry — as one can see from the last few years in Alberta.
Further, with more ‘development’ comes more private property in need of ‘protection’. With development will likely come more RCMP presence, especially when the construction of the pipeline has been so contested. This is more colonial shenanigans dressed up as self-determination with promises of ‘prosperity’ — but the questions of what type of prosperity and for exactly whom, remain unanswered.
Throughout this time, there was an explosion of solidarity actions across the country, including blockades of highways and acts of vandalism (in Winnipeg, RCMP monument was painted red as if covered in blood). Once again, Chartrand took his place in the spotlight and penned a statement condemning the vandals as cowards while singing the praises of the RCMP. The perpetrators were likely young activists, rightly enraged by the actions of the RCMP and the Canadian state, which included an armed raid on a healing centre and pointing sniper rifles at unarmed land defenders.
In this case, Chartrand has taken a page out of Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth’s book. Rather than listening to critics, Chartrand condemns them as a problem,gaslighting Indigenous people who have had negative experiences with police. This language is similar to that of an op-ed by Smyth, published in August 2020, where he blamed activists and academics for eroding the relationship between police and citizens, rather than addressing the violence and abuse perpetuated by police.
Chartrand’s full-page ad similarly completely dismisses the concerns of Indigenous activists and community members who criticize the police. His statement repeated bread and butter police apologist narratives eloquently debunked in the Grassroots Métis Statement on the WPG Police and MMF. These “bad apple” arguments completely paper over the fact that it is not individual police officers that perpetuate violence but the institution itself — at the end of the day, even the best-natured cop remains a foot soldier of capital and settler colonialism.
Chartrand responded to the criticism during a speech at the AGA, claiming that he is the legitimately elected leader of the MMF, and if the young people want to become leaders too they need to engage with the lower level bureaucracy of the federation. But most of the Métis people speaking out do not want to become MMF president or even leaders — they want to be heard. When the MMF claims to speak on their Nation’s behalf without consulting their people, as Chartrand did in his pro-cop ad, that is not a democracy. When Métis people are berated by their government for voicing their opinions, that is not a democracy.
In an episode of APTN’s Face to Face, representatives from RRE had the opportunity to address Chartrand’s response. RRE member Seraph-Eden Borodisky stated: “What we want is a return to a more traditional Métis style of governance as opposed to running our government like a corporation. And somewhat at this point after a quarter of a century like an oligarchy.”
Not only does Chartrand place the requirement of bureaucratic participation on grassroots citizens — enter the institution, develop its specific comprador consciousness, then we’ll take you seriously — but to run for leadership in the MMF is reportedly excessively difficult, with Chartrand holding onto his position for 24 years — about as long as the authors of this piece have been alive.
Is Chartrand a legitimate president capably guiding the Métis Nation towards true self-determination — which can be nothing less than the establishment of our own democratic revolutionary states and the end of settler colonialism? He’s certainly capable, and he was certainly elected, but when under one’s leadership there is a demonstrable ‘cozying up’ to the settler-colonial state, financial investment in extractive projects, and the denunciation of grassroots activity, a more pressing question presents itself: “which side are you on?”
Cam Cannon is an Anishinaabe writer entering their fourth year of studies in Global Political Economy at the University of Manitoba. They have specialized interests in the critique of settler colonialism and the development of the global capitalist system. Recently they served as news editor for the Manitoban. Their work has also appeared in Canadian Dimension and Passage.
Emelia Fournier is a Métis writer and holds a BA in Global Political Economy from the University of Manitoba. She has written about labour, environmental and justice issues in Canada. Her work has appeared in Canadian Dimension, the Manitoban and the Human Rights Hub Blog.
This article was published with support from The Media Co-op as part of a collaboration.