Canadian First Nations chief says mounted police assaulted him

Leyland Cecco in Toronto
Photograph: Trevor Hagan/Reuters

A prominent First Nations chief in Canada has said he and his wife were assaulted by police officers over an expired licence plate, an incident that came as the country grapples with continued violence against ethnic minorities at the hands of police.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a well-known businessman whose community has extensive operations in Alberta’s oil sands, said he and his wife, Freda Courtoreille, had a violent encounter with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on 10 March that has left the community in anguish. 

“We’re used to seeing this, time and time again, when our young people are mistreated and put in jail,” Adam told the Guardian. “Now, we’re not even witnesses to it any more: we’re victims.”

On 6 June, at an emotional press conference Adam released video footage of the assault, which Chief Vern Janvier Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation bluntly described as a “shit-kicking” at the hands of Wood Buffalo RCMP. 

As they waited in their truck for a friend, Adam’s wife spotted an RCMP nearby. The officer’s vehicle then blocked their truck from leaving.

Adam identified himself to police as chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and got out of the vehicle to tell the officer he didn’t realise the vehicle’s licence tag had expired. The vehicle had previously been impounded by police on an unrelated matter and released back to Adam a few days before. 

Adam said his wife, who suffers from late-stage rheumatoid arthritis, was then put in an arm hold and slammed against the vehicle.

At one point during the press conference, both Courtoreille and Adam broke down into tears and hugged.

“She had to see all of this. In all the years I’ve been in leadership … my wife has supported me 100 per cent. She gave me the support I needed,” said Adam. “The ordeal that she goes through when we sit at home and talk about this … all of this was for an expired licence plate.”

After she was allowed back in the truck, an argument ensued and the officer put Allan in the same restraint hold used on Courtoreille. Soon after, a second police officer arrived and struck Adam multiple times.

“I could feel that I was going unconscious and all I can remember is the blood gushing out of my mouth,” said Adam. He then felt the officer striking him multiple times. Video shows Courtoreille and bystanders pleading for the officers to stop.

Adam was taken to the RCMP detachment, where he was charged with resisting arrest and unlawful assault of a police officer. Courtoreille was arrested for obstruction, but never charged. 

The RCMP has said that Adam resisted arrest, and said in a statement to the Globe and Mail that the actions of the two officers were “reasonable”. 

Photographs of the chief’s face, swollen and crusted with dried blood, were provided to the Guardian.

“This could have ended in 10 minutes. But, it escalated,” said Adam’s lawyer, Brian Beresh, addingthat most people would be let off with a warning. “Here we have an Indigenous man, challenging someone with a uniform and a gun.”

Beresh has called for the RCMP to publicly release the on-board video footage from the police car. Beresh has also requested an independent investigation of the incident, the suspension of the officer and a requirement that all RCMP officers wear body cameras.

The police have said because the matter is before the courts, they cannot release any video documentation. 

The Assembly of First Nations regional chief, Marlene Poitras, said the event was appalling. 

“We need to know what happened here. We deserve answers,” she said, calling for transformative change to policing. “The system that is in place right now is inherently racist.”

Chief Mel Grandjam of Fort McKay First Nation told reporters he believed the incident would have unfolded differently if Adam had been a white political leader. 

“A lot of times, [the tendency of law enforcement] is to provoke us to react,” he said.

While the assault occurred in March, those close to the chief said the video wasn’t released at the time because the community was in the midst of developing its Covid-19 preparations. Colleagues of the chief said they pressed Adam to release the video but he initially refused. 

Footage of the assault is likely to provoke further outrage in Indigenous communities across the country, which are already in disbelief and anger after Chantel Moore, a 26-year old woman suffering from mental health issues, was gunned down by police. 

“I’m pissed, I’m outraged. There needs to be a full accounting of what has gone on,” said Marc Miller, the country’s minister of Indigenous services. 

Earlier in the week, video footage surfaced of an Inuk man rammed by the door of a police vehicle as he walked down a road.

“A car door is not a proper police tactic. It’s a disgraceful, dehumanising and violent act,” said Miller.

Adam remains in disbelief that the whole incident was over an expired licence plate. 

“Because we are a minority, no one speaks up for us. Every time our people do wrong, the RCMP always seems to use excessive force,” he said. “This needs to stop. Enough is enough.”

Speaking to the Guardian after his press conference, Adam expressed fear that if police were willing to use violence against a well-known chief, young men and women in his community might fare worse.

“I’ve been on the edge since this happened. I always have to look over my shoulder. I have to protect my family,” he said. “Am I scared? Yeah, I’m scared. That’s probably the feeling victims of police brutality have. But I’m not going to back down.”