Whose law is it anyway? Part 4: The thin blue line between keeping the peace and enforcing it

TVO.org speaks with retired Ontario Provincial Police officer Andy Miller about his work with First Nations, political interference, and why all of us need to do better
By Matt Gurney - Published on Feb 24, 2020
An OPP cruiser and two officers sit parked a short distance from the closed train tracks in Tyendinaga, near Belleville, on February 23. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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This is the fourth instalment in a five-part series looking at Wetʼsuwetʼen and the law. Read Part 3 here; watch for Part 5 on Tuesday.

On February 6, RCMP units moved to arrest protesters in British Columbia on the traditional land of the Wetʼsuwetʼen people, where protesters were blocking construction of the court-approved Coastal GasLink pipeline. The RCMP raid was authorized by a court. But whose court? As the controversy continues and solidarity protests pop up elsewhere in Canada, there is increasing talk of Indigenous law. TVO.org is interviewing five experts about what that is and what it means for Wetʼsuwetʼen. Today: retired Ontario Provincial Police officer Andy Miller, who has direct experience working with First Nations.

Matt Gurney: Andy, before we get into the meat of this, I want to mention to the readers that we were chatting before I turned on my tape recorder, and you told me something fascinating. At the start of your career, you weren’t just working with First Nations bands — you were among the first OPP officers to work with them.

Andy Miller: That’s right. Up until the late 1960s, the RCMP was directly responsible for law enforcement on reserves. Early in my career, it was decided that, in Ontario, the OPP would take that over. I requested duty with First Nations and ended up getting it — all over northwestern Ontario and later in southern Ontario, as well.

Gurney: Sorry to interrupt, but why did you ask for it?

Miller: It sounded interesting. I didn’t want to wind up with administration work, and I knew they needed officers on the reserves. All my experiences with First Nations were good. I really liked working with them, and I thought I’d apply. So I did, and I was accepted.

Gurney: What was that process like, when it transitioned from the RCMP to the OPP?

Miller: It took a while. But we started just by putting OPP officers in with the RCMP patrols. I was one of them. I’d ride with the RCMP for a shift. And, gradually, the OPP took that duty over. For me, it was about a year before we [the OPP] became responsible. But I always requested working there. I’d always go there if I could.

Gurney: Was that considered a good assignment?

Miller: It was for me. I always asked for it and usually got it.

Gurney: While we were getting set up for me to start taping, you mentioned that you, as a retired cop, view yourself as very pro-law enforcement, pro-rule of law. No surprise! But you also went out of the way to say that you were always very, very pro-Indigenous, pro-First Nations. Was that a tension?

Miller: No. Not for me. I liked the people. I liked working hands-on with people, and the First Nations people were good to work with. There were cultural differences. And the RCMP had been very strict with First Nations. I didn’t want to continue that. Criminal law is the law. If there was violence, we’d have to get involved and enforce the law. But me and my OPP colleagues also found ways to use our discretion. The RCMP used to be strict about pulling over people and checking for drivers’ licences and insurance. But if it was just for someone driving around the reserve, I didn’t see the point in that. It just made people angry. And the RCMP had also been very hard on First Nations people with alcohol. We loosened up on that. It wasn’t always easy, because there’s a fine line between recognizing that people can live their life and enforcing the law. We didn’t want to intrude more than we had to. We realized very quickly that the experience that First Nations had had with the RCMP and their own cultural values meant that we in the OPP had to adjust and do work. So we’d enforce criminal law and try to prevent violence and crime, but we didn’t want to be hard on people. And they responded to that. It took a long time, but we developed a lot of trust. They were forthright, they were honest, and we had to learn about them. We tried our best.

Gurney: Where did the role of Indigenous police forces come into this?

Miller: Actually, I was involved when that first started. The reserve I was working on at the time was one of the first that had its own First Nations force. We understood the value of having people see their own people in law enforcement. So we started doing what the RCMP had done with us — we started having Indigenous officers ride along with us. First they got some basic training through the province, but then they would ride with us. And what we found out very quickly was how much discord there was in some of these communities. There were very different views on how to live in some of these reservations, and there was a lot of prejudice even within the communities. So that was a big part of the adjustment — just because someone was given a badge didn’t make them a lord over people. The whole Western concept of law enforcement, and it’s not perfect in practice, is that the police are neutral, right? Again, I know it’s not perfect. But that’s something we found we had to teach people. It wasn’t just about one group of people being over another. It was people in that community wanting to have power over others of their own people. So we worked very hard to instill that sense of impartiality and to make sure heads weren’t getting cracked over a disagreement or a dispute within the community.

Gurney: I’m curious how you guys were received. You’ve spoken pretty openly, both on the record here and before I had my recorder rolling, of your admiration for First Nations and your sympathy for their continuing struggles. But when you showed up at a call, a white guy with a badge and a gun, how were you received?

Miller: Actually, it was the Indigenous officers who had the worst response. We’d get called a lot of stuff, but they got called “apples” — red [skinned] on the outside but all white inside. Sometimes his own people wouldn’t accept him and his role in the community. But they often viewed us as peacekeepers. We were there not to interfere in people’s affairs — there was a strong cultural preference to mind your own business, which made domestic-abuse cases particularly difficult for us — but the community still knew they needed the peace kept. That was how they viewed our role, and we came to agree with that. It was a good way to look at it. I made a lot of great friends on the reserves and admired those people very much. Some people intensely disliked me! But that is normal. And I would tell myself I was just trying to do my best and that people wouldn’t always understand that.

Gurney: How did your work as an OPP officer differ from your work with First Nations compared to when you were just in any random Ontario community?

Miller: The law was the law. The criminal law. We had to enforce that. That was the same everywhere. On the reserves, we tried to respect their culture and learn about it. But police work is police work. We do our best.

Gurney: When we spoke before, you mentioned to me that a big part of your career was doing specialized crowd-control work. Was that with First Nations?

Miller: No, that was another part of my career. But, yes, I worked with units developed for crowd-control situations — protests, strikes, things like that. Special training and rules and equipment. But that wasn’t overlapping with my work with First Nations.

Gurney: Is there anything from your work there that applies to the current crisis? [Editor’s note: this interview took place before the OPP moved to clear the protest near Belleville, but action was obviously imminent at that time.]

Miller: From the police perspective, when you decide to go in, you need to win. There’s time and discretion before we go in. We don’t want to just go in swinging billy clubs and hurting people, like we’ve seen in Hong Kong. But when a situation requires a crowd-control response, you need to be smart. You need numbers. You don’t want anyone to get hurt, so you send in just overwhelming numbers of people. You can’t retreat. That just makes the problem worse. When the police make a decision to move in, they’re going in to win.

But it’s interesting. You don’t send in your 200-pound bruisers. You don’t want to send in heavily armed officers. That can make things worse. You need those guys. You want them there if they’re needed. But you try to go in in as non-intimidating a way as possible and keep things calm, not make them worse. If there are women in the crowd, you try to send in female officers to talk to them. So, yes, you go in to win, and you’re ready for things to go badly, but you don’t want it to, and you try not to make it harder. Besides [chuckles], some of those smaller officers look nice, but they could surprise you if you tried to rough them up.

Gurney: But that’s just general crowd-control advice — not specifically for First Nations.

Miller: Absolutely. [laughs] There were a couple of times during my work with First Nations when I saw a situation that maybe needed crowd control, but we’d just high-tail it out of there and come back later.

Gurney: You’ve been watching the situation near Belleville?

Miller: Yes, I have. I have some experience there. I know some of the officers there and some of the people in the communities. Good people, but it’s a challenging situation. Your readers should know that there are professional protesters. I know people are skeptical about that, and I’m not saying there aren’t genuine First Nations people protesting real issues. Of course there are. But we also know there are agitators, full-time, and they travel around from cause to cause. They show up where things are tense and make things worse. In my experience in the OPP, we knew those people were out there, and they would show up in southern Ontario. They often come up from the United States. These people aren’t necessarily First Nations. But they can make things worse for everybody.

And, also, there’s a big difference there. Sometimes when the OPP works with First Nations communities in these kinds of problems, we don’t view it as crowd control — we view it as hostage negotiating. That’s how we try to work with people to bring something to a non-violent end. You can see that process unfolding slowly in British Columbia now, with the RCMP negotiating about the pipeline protests. They have time, and they’ll come to a peaceful solution. If that’s the situation, time is on our side. We can allow things to develop slowly. We have the resources. But when it’s a rail blockade, that’s not true. Rail is too important. It’s critical. A lot of people need that railway operating. So it can take away some of the flexibility police would normally have in how they manage a crisis.

Gurney: I want to acknowledge here that you told me at the outset that you didn’t have any direct insight into the current crisis. You’re retired now. But you dealt with these kinds of issues in your career. And one of the issues that I think a lot of the public doesn’t understand is how the police can have a court order saying “Clear that blockade,” and nothing happens. If the police won’t do what the court says, who will?

Miller: Our job is to not make things worse. If a court tells us we need to clear a blockade, okay. Fair enough. We’ll do that. But how we do that is at our discretion. And we want to negotiate. We really do. We don’t want to have to go in with force. So, yes, the court can direct us. And we’ll obey. But we still have to approach the situation carefully and use our best judgment. Like I said, with a railway blockade, that’s hard. The pressure is on.

Gurney: Again, not asking you to speak to the current situation, but how do OPP officers feel about situations like this?

Miller: It’s complicated. It’s political. That’s never easy for an officer. The rank-and-file officers don’t want anyone getting hurt — on either side. So they’re cautious. But they know they can get blamed by higher-ups if anything goes wrong. So you’re damned if you do or don’t. And the commissioned officers are concerned, too. If things go badly, they know the politicians will blame them. So it can get very complicated when there’s politics. Everyone is worried they’ll get blamed. No one wants to make a mistake. But there’s still a job to do. Any direct confrontation is a last resort.

Gurney: By the time of Ipperwash and Caledonia, you had been promoted into an administrative role or were heading into retirement, but I’m curious how you think the OPP culture has changed in recent years, especially when it comes to First Nations and policing?

Miller: Yeah. I’m cautious about commenting here. I wasn’t there. Others were. But I think, overall, police can’t let things go too far. In Ipperwash and Caledonia, things had progressed too far by the time the police were involved, and action was taken or not. There wasn’t an easy solution left. Anything was a big deal. Again, I wasn’t involved, but I suspect there was political inference. Politicians didn’t want a scene. They wanted the problem to go away. But that doesn’t happen. And the police waiting can make things worse. The problems don’t go away if you ignore them.

Can I add one more thing?

Gurney: Sure.

Miller: I just want to say we need to do better. All of us. These problems have been around a long time. Canada isn’t the only country that has them. We need to understand these cultural differences but also find a way to work together. And there’s mistrust and misunderstandings. But we can do better, and we have to.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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