Manitoba justice minister holds on to proposed amendments to police legislation to do more consultation

The Manitoba government is holding off from making amendments to its policing legislation in order to consult more with Indigenous leadership and hopefully ensure the amendments are appropriate in addressing systemic issues, Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said Tuesday.

An independent review of the Police Services Act released last November made 70 recommendations that would improve various aspects of policing in Manitoba. A bill was introduced to the legislature shortly after with proposed amendments to the legislation.

But Friesen, who took over as justice minister after a cabinet shuffle in January, told reporters during a scrum Tuesday that he has pulled the proposals back in order to strengthen them.

“As a new minister, I was able to see the intended amendments. I have deliberately chosen to hold those amendments because I think we have an opportunity before us right now to strengthen those amendments, especially in lieu of the death of Eishia Hudson [and] the IIU (Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba) report on that death,” he said.

Hudson, a 16-year-old Indigenous girl, died last April after being shot by a Winnipeg police officer. The ensuing investigation of the IIU, Manitoba’s police watchdog, finished in January and concluded that the officer involved should not be charged.

Friesen reached out to the grand chiefs in Manitoba and has asked for them to help in shaping the amendments. The aim is to bolster the mandate and operations of the IIU.

The hope is the consultation will lead to greater public trust in the IIU and that the agency reflects the community it serves, Friesen said.

“I felt it would be tone deaf to bring amendments now that did not include that important work,” he said.

Review suggest more power, independence for oversight

Police forces and oversight agencies have been under intense scrutiny since last spring, following the police reform protests sparked by the deaths of people like George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. — both of whom died as a result of use of force.

But the Manitoba government had committed to a review of its police legislation in its 2018 throne speech, and issued public tenders in May 2019 to hire someone to conduct it. The review was released publicly November of last year.

The 196-page document made 70 recommendations. Some were about police conduct, the delegation of responsibilities of police officers and policing in general. But many focused on specifying or giving greater powers to police oversight agencies, and keeping them independent from who they monitor.

There were over a dozen recommendations specifically for the IIU, as well as some suggestions to keep municipal police boards independent from their local forces.

Nahanni Fontaine, NDP justice critic, says there has been a recent push from the public to strengthen the IIU since the death of Eishia Hudson

The IIU final report into Hudson’s death “made it very clear that there are some problems there,” said Fontaine.

Manitoba’s chief medical examiner recently called an inquest into Hudson’s death. A fatality inquest cannot assign blame, but examines the circumstances around a death and offers recommendations to avoid similar instances in the future.

‘There’s a problem when we rush things’

Ultimately, Fontaine is ok with the delay — assuming consultation with Indigenous leaders is actually done.

“There’s a problem when we rush things, so I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing if they [pause],” she said. “My hope is that they would do the consultation to make that bill be what it can be.”

Fontaine fears the proposed amendments were only based on what came out of the external review, she said. So she hopes the justice ministry in fact has meaningful consultation with Indigenous leaders in Manitoba, as well as community members and organizations on the front lines.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont says he has recently spoken with Robert Taman about police oversight. In 2016, Taman resigned from his position as a civilian member of the Manitoba Police Commission, citing concerns police officers were investigating themselves after an active member of the Winnipeg Police Service joined the IIU.

Citing their conversation, Lamont says civilians should be setting the rules for police in certain ways. The City of Winnipeg, for example, should set the rules on use of force by police officers, he said.

“The other thing that’s really important is that cops shouldn’t be investigating cops, or the same cop from the same force shouldn’t be investigating cops,” he said.

Friesen committed to having the amendments ready some time during the current legislative session, but “not before March 15.”