The Justice for Abdirahman Abdi Coalition, an Ottawa-based coalition advocating for justice for the late Abdirahman Abdi and his family, expresses grave concern over the handling by Ottawa Police of the death of world-renowned artist and community figure Annie Pootoogook. We are also outraged at and condemn the racist comments made by Police Sergeant Chris Hrnchiar regarding her death.
It is deeply troubling that it took several days for Ottawa Police Service to declare Ms. Pootoogook’s death suspicious. The fact that an Indigenous woman found dead in a river, especially in light of the ongoing national tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women, was declared at first not to be suspicious is astounding. It reveals a dangerous ignorance to wider societal issues on the part of the Ottawa Police Service and demonstrates a callous indifference to the lives of Indigenous people and other people of colour.
In the days following Ms. Pootoogook’s death, Ottawa Police Sergeant Hrnchiar claimed that the case “has nothing to do with missing or murdered Aboriginal women”, and that “It’s not a murder case… it’s could be a suicide, accidental, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned who knows… typically many Aboriginals have very short lifespans, talent or not [sic]”. He further claimed that “because much of the aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers, living in poor conditions etc… they have to have the will to change, it’s not society’s fault [sic]”.
Mr. Hrnchiar’s vile comments betray an utter lack of respect or acknowledgement for the struggles of Indigenous people. It is absolutely reprehensible that Mr. Hrnchiar blames Indigenous people for being marginalized. Despite many challenges faced by Indigenous communities, they are resilient and continue to thrive across Canada. These hateful comments and false depiction of the Indigenous community by Mr. Hrnchiar must be investigated.
We are very concerned that a person of authority, especially one entrusted to enforce the law, not only holds such repulsive views, but is very comfortable displaying them publicly. Additionally, we are deeply disappointed that the top official of this city, Mayor Jim Watson, deemed Mr. Hrnchiar’s comments as “‘bordering’ on racism”. Mr. Watson, those comments are fundamentally racist. Until you, as leader of this city, begin to face racism head-on, without equivocation, hesitation, or qualification, it will be very difficult to build a city that challenges and roots out racism in all its forms.
It is important that the City of Ottawa and Ottawa Police Service take meaningful steps to tackle issues of racism and discrimination within its ranks. The Justice for Abdirahman Coalition has put forward recommendations that we believe would help us address the problem including the implementation of an effective mechanism to hold police accountable for systemic discrimination, and the collection and reporting of race-based data on police encounters with civilians. The public must have confidence that City and the Police force take racism and discrimination seriously and are doing everything they can to address it.
Finally, we want to send our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Ms. Pootoogook, and express our solidarity with the Inuit community in Ottawa who must be reeling from this tremendous loss. Like Mr. Abdi, we hope the community remembers Ms. Pootoogook as a human being with extraordinary warmth and talent, and that her life, work, and memory are not overshadowed by Mr. Hrnchiar’s racist remarks and Ottawa Police Service’s mishandling of the initial investigation surrounding her death.
To our Indigenous brothers and sisters, we send not only our thoughts and prayers, but also our wholehearted commitment to working and struggling together towards an anti-racist city that cares for all communities and people. We urge all publicly elected officials to join us in this commitment and take steps to make meaningful changes