Official recognition of crimes against humanity, and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are conducted by governments. Both are formal processes that bring truth to light in the public domain. But changing relationships among perpetrators and victims, and/or their descendants, is a result of the actions of courageous individuals. This story from Canada illustrates the personal process that’s required.
A Racist Comment about an Indigenous Artist
In 2016 the body of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook was found on the banks of the Rideau River in Ottawa. She had a national and international reputation for her depiction of alcoholism, violence, and domestic abuse in Northern Canadian communities, and had had many battles with addiction herself. Veldon Coburn, a Algonquin of Pikwakanagan, who had adopted the daughter of Pootoogook when the artist was homeless, was shocked to read a racist comment posted on Facebook about her death. In part, it read: “Much of the Aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers,” and “it’s not a murder case … could be a suicide, accidental, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned, who knows.” The implication was that she was “just another lazy, drunken Native person.”
Coburn was even more shocked to learn that the author of the comment was Staff Sergeant Chris Hrnchiar, a 30-year veteran of the Ottawa Police Service and the supervisor in charge of the forensic investigation of the scene where Pootoogook’s body was found.
What stands out for me from this point in the story is the courage of both men:
- Coburn complained about Hrnchair’s conduct. I think this takes courage because not everyone takes a public stand against the police and makes a formal complaint. After an investigation, Hrnchiar was charged with two counts of discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act, and for making comments on an open investigation. He pled guilty.
- Hrnchiar made an apology in court during his sentencing. It is common for someone who has committed a crime to apologize, often in hopes of getting a lighter sentence. In his case, he was demoted for 3 months and ordered to take cultural sensitivity training. But Hrnchiar also acknowledged his ignorance and insensitivity to the issues, the embarrassment he caused the Ottawa police, and the emotional harm he had done to the Inuit community. “I realize that I didn’t know as much as I should have known, “ he said, “and I wasn’t as sensitive to things as I should’ve [been].” I don’t think this public declaration was easy to make.
- Hrnchiar didn’t stop there. After months of education and self-reflection, he reached out to Coburn to meet with him one-on-one. It takes courage to request a meeting with someone you have harmed, either physically or emotionally, or both.
- It also takes courage to accept a meeting with a perpetrator. Coburn agreed, believing that Hrnchiar had genuine remorse. “I thought, jeez, this is somebody who actually cares,” said Coburn. “This is somebody who has a conscience, who may have stepped out of line … And the fact that you were open to saying, ‘I can see things from the other side and I can empathize with it’ … that’s what I can work with.”
- When they met, appropriately at the Canadian Museum of History, Hrnchiar said to Coburn: “I’m blessed to be able to see you, to apologize to your face because I know how much it’s hurt your community and the people you love.” To look a victim in the eye and say that—well, I find that courageous.
The Rewards of Truth and Reconciliation
Coburn stood up for truth, but he also opened his arms to someone who expressed remorse and had a genuine desire to learn. “I think Canadians are looking for somebody who can bridge the gap,” he said. I agree.
Hrnchiar acknowledgement of the truth of his actions and his seeking reconciliation have resulted in benefits he could not have anticipated. “Even though I may have lived a different life, I want to understand,” he said. After taking the course in sensitivity training, he stated that every
police officer should have to take it. “I mean, it was really shocking to realize the history … I had no idea.” And for him, hearing someone say “I forgive you,” has been “so positive.”
For both these men of courage, it has been a healing experience. The process continues, one step at a time.