A mandatory online training course called “Cultural Awareness and Humility” that was rolled out last fall for all RCMP members and touted by the commissioner as an example of the force’s efforts to modernize misses the mark on many levels, according to experts who have reviewed the program for the Star.
One glaring gap, they say, is the lack of content addressing institutionalized racism, particularly anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism. Instead, the training emphasizes only implicit biases and reforming individual attitudes and behaviours.
Some noted that a section on the RCMP’s role in colonization was given short shrift — just three paragraphs.
One expert said a section dealing with how to avoid stereotyping in communications was so simplified it reminded her of course materials her nine-year-old daughter gets in school. Other sections, the experts said, contained outdated or confusing terminology.
“This does not increase accountability. A participant is simply given a certificate without needing to demonstrate any real change,” said Kanika Samuels-Wortley, a professor at Carleton University’s Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
“We’ve got to ask, with all the calls for police reform and concerns over negative encounters with the police, can sitting in front of a computer, that involves no human interaction, produce change?”
In a statement to the Star, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said she was disappointed to hear the criticism, noting that the course is just one component of the force’s cultural learning strategy and was “not designed to single-handedly address systemic issues in the organization.”
“We consulted widely during the development of this training. I strongly believe that anything we can do to increase cultural awareness, sensitivity and humility is a benefit to the organization, and to the communities we serve.”
RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval added that a separate training course dealing with systemic racism, anti-racism and discrimination is in development “to address employees’ competency gaps in their ability to appropriately interact with racialized colleagues and the diverse communities the RCMP serves.”
“It will build the foundation for a common understanding of terminology, historical impacts, as well as disparities and inequities resulting from racism. Finally, it will introduce meaningful best practices for supporting people who have suffered as a result of racism. This includes being empathetic, recognizing the importance of learning about the needs of others and creating a culture of allyship.”
Canada’s national police force has been under intense scrutiny over its internal culture and its policing of Indigenous Peoples and Black Canadians. Last year, Lucki drew criticism and calls for her resignation after saying in an interview that she struggled over the definition of systemic racism and its existence in her police force only to change course days later, acknowledging that “systemic racism is part of every institution, the RCMP included.”
The commissioner later told the Star she had listened and learned and that she had a plan to change the RCMP’s culture.
As part of that plan, she touted the cultural humility course.
How the program was made
The RCMP said the course was developed over a period of several months after consulting internally with its vulnerable-persons unit and gender-based violence working group and externally with an advisory council of elders and federal departments.
The Star paid $50 to access the training on an online repository for law-enforcement courses.
Its stated objectives include getting people to recognize how their personal beliefs and attitudes affect their daily interactions and perceptions; to respect differences in social and cultural norms in society; and to find ways to work with people from diverse backgrounds. Being open-minded and non-judgmental is a consistent theme.
The training, which consists of six modules and takes two to three hours to complete, is mostly text-based and laden with terminology, such as prejudice, bias, classism, ethnic stereotyping, microaggressions and intergenerational trauma, and their definitions.
The training includes interactive components, such as video clips of a residential school survivor and her grandson and a section in which officers are asked how they would respond to scenarios in which co-workers displayed racist or discriminatory behaviour.
Who assessed the course for the Star
To analyze the RCMP program, the Star turned to several people with backgrounds in issues of race, identity and criminal justice.
- Kanika Samuels-Wortley, a professor at Carleton University’s Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice;
- Carl Everton James, a York University professor of education and that school’s senior adviser on equity and representation;
- Mylene Jaccoud, a criminology professor at the University of Montreal, specializing in restorative justice and criminalization of Indigenous people; and
- Shiri Pasternak, a criminology professor at Ryerson University specializing in settler colonialism.
What they saw
Right from the beginning, the program hits a flawed note, said Pasternak, pointing to a line in the preamble that states: “Systemic racism is a term that is now being commonly used and it is a reflection of a society’s failure to prioritize everyone’s needs.”
“No, systemic racism is about structures of oppression, it’s not a failure of society,” Pasternak said. (Later in the training, a page does define systemic racism as “the policies and practices of organizations, which directly or indirectly operate to sustain the advantages of certain ‘social races.’”)
The preamble goes on to say: “The RCMP has always worked to create safe communities. We have always worked to protect people’s Charter rights. Now we are being asked to recognize that not every member of Canadian society feels supported.”
Pasternak called that language harmful gaslighting, noting the RCMP’s role in forcibly removing children from their homes to attend residential schools and documented failures related to investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The first module of the training emphasizes the importance of respecting diversity, embracing a range of cultures and avoiding making assumptions based on first impressions.
Samuels-Wortley said this section bombards the participant with uncommon terminology. For instance, a chart outlines different responses to diversity, from “acceptance of diversity” to a “rejection of diversity.”
“It would have been simpler to just say ‘racism,’” she said.
“It is as though the training material goes out of the way to be gentle and not use terminology that could offend.”
Far too simple
In a module devoted to communication, participants are told to be aware of stereotyping in their language.
For instance, participants are told: “Don’t use words, images, and situations suggesting members of a racial group are the same: e.g. ‘Don’t expect Jo to be on time. Everyone from that culture is always late.’”
The training also urges avoidance of racial identifiers. “‘Ms. Woo, an attentive client,’ is preferable to, ‘Ms. Woo, an attentive Asian Canadian client.’ ”
Participants are told they are “not expected to know everything about all different cultures and groups of people.”
“Cultural humility sets an expectation to learn as much as you can, particularly about key groups of people you typically work with. When you don’t know, ask. It is important to be observant, respectful, and adapt your own behaviours where reasonable and possible.”
This entire section, Samuels-Wortley said, is very general and “does little to address the complexities of communication with peoples from different racial groups.”
“My daughter is nine years old and just did a similar unit in her class,” she said. “The module reviews in general are pitched extremely low, not pedagogically designed — from what I can tell — for any particular critical thinking.”
Significant Indigenous issues left unaddressed
One page in the course summarizes Canadian laws and RCMP policies dealing with culture and diversity, such as the Canadian Human Rights Act and the RCMP’s bias-free policing policy.
But Pasternak wrote in an email the page would have benefited by having a primer on Aboriginal jurisprudence.
“One of the problems when police enforce, e.g. injunctions, is that they seem to have no knowledge or understanding about Aboriginal rights. They see land defenders as lawless agitators, but have no context for the legal rights Indigenous people hold,” she said.
One of the six modules is devoted to “cultural awareness in Indigenous communities.”
It describes the uniqueness of Indigenous languages and their contributions to the “rich linguistic mosaic of Canada,” as well as the importance of Indigenous art, culture and heritage.
“Taking in the rich history of Indigenous art is a great way to celebrate the multi-layered cultural tapestry of the many diverse communities of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis,” participants are told.
It is within this section that the RCMP’s role in colonization is summarized in three paragraphs. Participants are told this may be a contributing factor to the “fear that some communities may have toward police.”
A page on the vulnerability of Indigenous women and girls is also summed up in three paragraphs. Participants are provided a link to an “essential” source of reading material: the final report of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
For such important and necessary topics, Samuels-Wortley said, the coverage is “embarrassing.”
Pasternak agreed, saying parts of this section contained “the most generalized pablum.”
“What on earth is the point of this page?” she asked, referring to the page on arts, culture and heritage. “To say native art is good?”
The page on the RCMP’s role in colonization frames the harm and violence only in the past, “when it goes right up until the current moment,” she added.
‘Constructing the other’
Given that we live in an ethnoculturally diverse nation, participants are told there will be times when officers encounter language barriers. Data is cited showing the number of people in Canada who report being an immigrant or permanent resident has climbed to 22 per cent and could reach 30 per cent by 2036.
James said he was troubled that the discussion around diversity seemed to be framed only in terms of immigrant cultural backgrounds.
“What about the people who have been here two or three generations?” he asked.
“We have to move away from constructing the other.”
He also homed in on a page that broke down definitions for the terms “ethnic group,” “ethnic minority” and “ethnic stereotyping.”
“Ethnic minority” is defined in the course as a group within a community that has different national or cultural traditions from the main population.
James said he would revise this. Look at South Africa, he said. The majority were Black but they were the minority because they were not part of the political power structure.
Calling out racism
The final module of the training consists of a variety of everyday scenarios in which a co-worker demonstrates problematic behaviour. Participants are asked how they would respond.
In one scenario, a colleague is overheard speaking on the phone with a citizen who smells smoke in the neighbourhood and is concerned it’s marijuana.
“You and your colleague know that the community centre hosts traditional blessing ceremonies/purification rites known as smudging that are performed by some Indigenous groups and are the real cause of the smoke and the smell that is being reported. As you listen to your colleague on the phone, he explains to the citizen, ‘Yes, they are burning sage. You know, it’s that stuff you put in spaghetti sauce. But, they are using it for smudging.’”
Participants are advised that should they face such a scenario, they should tell their co-worker he has “minimized the importance of the ceremony.”
“You can provide him with information about the significance of smudging and that in many First Nations or Métis communities, this ceremony can be tied to healing, cleansing and blessing.”
But Samuels-Wortley questions how likely it is that officers will confront fellow officers like this, noting it has been established there is a “culture of silence” within policing wherein officers do not feel protected, if they raise concerns.
The training program has “good intent,” but likely “few impacts,” said Jaccoud.
She said the training reminded her of cultural awareness training programs used in the 1980s to try to address overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the corrections system.
“You will never resolve structural problems with cultural programs,” she said.
Pasternak agreed it is not enough to treat this as a cultural competency issue.
“My overall take is that there isn’t any possibility that this course could make any positive difference in the policing of Indigenous people,” she said.
What is the ultimate objective of this training, Samuels-Wortley asked.
“If it is to address concerns over police use of force, discretionary police arrests, to increase trust in the police among members of Black, Indigenous or racialized communities, this training does little to address any of these issues.”
The experts said the training program’s focus on individual ideas, attitudes and behaviours and raising self-awareness ignores how an institution’s culture can influence individuals within that institution.
“What about the institution of the RCMP — the structure on which it’s built and how much that structure probably also needs to go through the necessary changes in order to understand and incorporate the diversity of the people to be served?” asked James.
“That needs to be unpacked.”
James says there is merit to the training, but he’s curious what is done after the training is over to reinforce what was learned.
“I think there’s some worth to it, it provides information. But what do you do beyond this? What additional engagement do they have? What conversations do they have?” he said.
Duval, the RCMP spokesperson, said the force believes its cultural humility course is an important part of “advancing reconciliation and issues of systemic racism.”
Besides developing a separate anti-racism course, she said, the force is also preparing a timeline that outlines the historical relationship between the force and Indigenous people, training for frontline officers in restorative justice as a way to eliminate the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in custody, and courses focusing on “newcomers, immigrants and refugees.”