Inuit RCMP officers in decline

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With Cpl. Henry Coman’s retirement in May, Nunavut RCMP lost an officer with 25 years experience and one-quarter of its Inuit workforce.

“I hope there are more Inuks that do consider a career in the RCMP because we definitely need more Inuit members, for sure,” said Henry Coman, who also believes Nunavut’s police force should be bolstered in general.
photo courtesy of Henry Coman

Only three Inuit police officers remain in ‘V’ Division, a police force consisting of close to 120 officers.

Coman, whose last day in uniform was May 4, has moved on to become a lawyer with Justice Canada. He spent a couple of years in the RCMP’s recruitment division during his career, so he knows about the challenges of inspiring newcomers.

“I hope there are more Inuks that do consider a career in the RCMP because we definitely need more Inuit members, for sure,” he said.

He added that the police force has introduced a two-year college program as an alternative to writing the daunting entrance exam, which he described as a positive step to making the RCMP more accessible.

There were seven active Inuit RCMP officers in Iqaluit in November 2016 when the first “all-Inuit shift” occurred. The numbers have since dwindled due to retirements and transfers.

Coman, a graduate of the Akitsiraq law program in 2005, held on to his ambition to practise law upon his retirement as a Mountie.

“That was a long-term goal for me,” he said.

 Job easier as an Inuk, but danger always lurks

Influenced by his grandfather, Joanasie Dialla, who was a special constable with the RCMP in Pangnirtung, Coman enlisted with the police force in Iqaluit and served in Yellowknife, Qikiqtarjuaq, Rankin Inlet and, finally, back in Iqaluit.

Being born in Pangnirtung and having lived most of his life in Nunavut was advantageous to his career, Coman said.

“I would say, overall, it was always a positive thing that I was Inuk and a police officer. That made my job a lot easier,” he said, adding that he speaks enough Inuktitut to help ease the language barrier that exists for non-Inuit officers. “But, of course, there’s always some people that do not like the police whatsoever, regardless of your background and race. I experienced that as well.”

He said police officers tend to develop “pretty thick skin” to endure that animosity.

“You just learn to brush it off,” he said.

What wasn’t so easy to brush off was knowledge of the armed standoffs in the territory over the years, some involving the exchange of gunfire and the loss of life.

“That sort of gets you to think whether or not this profession is for you anymore,” Coman revealed. “Somebody targets the uniform and one day it could be you… that’s something that’s always in the back of one’s mind.”

Nunavut has the second highest Criminal Code file load and the most prosecutions per police officer in the country, ‘V’ Division Commanding Officer Michael Jeffrey stated last year. The territory also has the highest number of mental health requests per call volume within RCMP jurisdictions. For those reasons, Coman also would like to see an increase in the number of police officers overall.

“It’s getting busier as the years go on,” Coman said. “When the work increases, you need to increase the staff as well.”

Statistics Canada data from 2016 shows Nunavut trailed the Yukon slightly in the number of officers per capita, but had substantially fewer officers per civilian than the NWT.

Although there wasn’t a single incident that stood out from his police career, Coman said he takes satisfaction in having helped many women who suffered from spousal abuse.

“Just getting them to safety and getting them the help that they need,” he recalled.

Yet there is only such much a police officer can do, he acknowledged. The social crisis and related rising crime rate in Pangnirtung is an example of the strain on police officers, he said.

“They’ll do as much as they can but the staff there is limited. I think they have a staff of three people and they’re working to get four in there at some point,” he said. “That’s where the team effort needs to come into play, to have the hamlet and the schools put on more sports and cultural activities to basically keep people busy. People get bored and they start thinking bad thoughts and doing bad things.”

Tour of Afghanistan

One of the aspects of the job that Coman will miss is the variety of work.

“Every day is pretty much different. You don’t know what to expect the next day,” he said.

That held true in Afghanistan as well, where Coman did a one-year tour in 2007-08. He worked alongside Canadian soldiers and watched Afghani police officers armed with AK-47 assault rifles.

The country’s extreme heat is something he won’t forget either.

“In the summertime at night, it would cool down to about 34C,” he said. “You’re looking at 45, maybe 50 degrees (Celsius) during the day. It was hot!”

And Coman will be missed as well. Const. Jamie Savikataaq worked alongside him for several years.

“Henry was a member who exemplified the RCMP core values. His professionalism and integrity was an important part of his successful 25-year career. I congratulate Henry and his wife Alison along with their two daughters. You’ve earned it bud, enjoy the new chapter of your life and the adventures that will come,” said Savikataaq.

“It is with mixed emotions that I congratulate Henry. With his retirement it now leaves us with only three Inuit RCMP officers in Nunavut. I would encourage Inuit to consider a career with the RCMP.”