The CBC had a thorough report on this stain on Canadian history. In 2003, they produced the movie Cowboys and Indians which is one of the most accurate docudramas ever done. If you have not seen this movie, watch for it and/or request it. (There is also a stunning documentary about the 1995 shooting of Dudley George made by Rough Cuts and showing up on several channels).
The Harper story is interesting for several reasons. A solid inquiry was held and recommendations were made. Racism was identified and recognized. Yet, as the CBC website shows in its update 15 years later, the police are still reluctant to let go of a culture which allows it to commit violence against the citizens it has sworn to serve and protect.
March 9, 1988: A young native leader, J.J. Harper, is stopped by Winnipeg Police Constable Robert Cross, who mistakes him for a car thief.
A scuffle ensues. A shot is fired. Harper is killed.
J.J. Harper's death, along with the 1971 murder of Helen Betty Osbourne, sparks an outcry. On April 13, 1988, Manitoba's NDP government set up the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.
For two years, a panel criss-crossed the province, hearing heart-breaking stories from aboriginal people struggling to fit into the justice system.
When it was over, the panel had heard from more than 1,000 people, amassing 27,000 pages of transcripts.
In 1991, the inquiry panel released its final report. It was widely hailed as a landmark document, announcing to the province what many aboriginal people already knew: the justice system was insensitive and inaccessible, and was failing aboriginal people on a massive scale.
Many in the aboriginal community had high hopes the report would bring about big change. The report included 140 recommendations: everything from setting up an independent aboriginal child welfare system to hiring more aboriginal police officers to setting up an independent justice system for aboriginal people.
For years after the inquiry panel filed its report, native groups complained it was being ignored by the Conservative government that took over from the NDP. Then, in 1999, the NDP returned to office.
Putting the recommendations to work
Protest sign in Ferguson, MO after the killing of Michael Brown, a 18-year-old black male, by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white male policeman, in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The results were that same as Toronto killer cop Randy Martin. After several months of deliberation, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson for any criminal charges in relation to the killing. 007
"When we came into office and I walked into the minister's office, I discovered the minister's copy of the AJI report on a top shelf, wrapped in its original plastic," says NDP Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh. "I think that spoke volumes to the respect that had not been given to the promise that was held out by the AJI report of 1991."
The NDP set up the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry Implementation Commission in late 1999 to study the inquiry report's recommendations and create an action plan based on the report. The Implementation Commission made 54 recommendations. The government says it made progress on 52 of the recommendations, but the progress is imperceptible to some observers.
"There has been no change," says Joe Guy Wood, former chief in the Island Lake Tribal Council and J.J. Harper's uncle. "There [have been] a few attempts at that by the present government to try and address those [AJI recommendations], but there hasn't been that much change. As a matter of fact, I could say it is worse today than it was at that time.
"The bottom line is that here in Manitoba, it is still very much an oppressive situation," says Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Dennis White Bird. "The police are still having their confrontations and conflicts with First Nations people. Nothing has really changed."
Changes in the police, child welfare
Winnipeg Police Chief Jack Ewatski (right) disagrees, saying the AJI report was a catalyst for change - something the force is proud of.
"We now have 111 aboriginal officers in the police service - that's close to nine per cent of the population of police, a significant improvement from 15 years ago," he says.
The AJI recommended the police force target aboriginals for 50 per cent of their recruiting until at least 133 native officers were on the force, with more to come later. Ewatski says recruiting aboriginals is hard, saying more needs to be done to foster better relations between First Nations people and the police.
"There is still a level of disconnect. There is still a level of uncomfortableness between the police and the aboriginal community itself," he says.
Another area where the AJI's recommendations have had some effect is in child welfare services. The AJI recommended the province set up independent child welfare systems for aboriginal and Métis children and give native child welfare services jurisdiction over children living off-reserve.
In June, aboriginal child welfare agencies in Manitoba will take over all First Nations cases 14,000 in all.
Progress is slow
Despite this progress, many people still feel the AJI's recommendations were too lofty to be put into reality.
Gordon Sinclair, a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press who wrote a book on the shooting of J.J. Harper, says he sees some improvement - albeit slow - but the system can't change overnight, or even in the 12 years since the AJI released its report.
"I don't know if it's palatable, or even doable," he says of some of the AJI recommendations. "But if they can't do it, the NDP with their aboriginal constituency, who's going to do it for aboriginal people?"
MLA Eric Robinson, who helped write the original AJI report, agrees that change doesn't come quickly. "I believe that the change is coming. We would like to do it, like, 10 years ago, but unfortunately the way things work out, we're just getting to these issues, the critical ones if you will, at this point in time.
"There's much more work to be done, let's not fool ourselves."