A police officer behind the violent arrest of a young Inuk woman outside the Muskrat Falls hydro project last fall has been recognized as the RCMP “Police Officer of the Year” by Crime Stoppers of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Corporal Troy Bennett of the Happy Valley-Goose Bay RCMP detachment was celebrated Friday afternoon outside St. John’s during the annual Police and Peace Officer of the Year Awards (POYA) ceremony organized by Crime Stoppers to recognize the top RCMP officer, RNC officer and peace officer of the year within the province.
Bennett, whose bio from the awards ceremony describes him as a husband, father and status Mi’kmaq person, is the subject of an official complaint to the RCMP by 25-year-old Inuk and Rigolet resident Emily Wolfrey, who was arrested by Bennett and other police officers on Oct. 17, 2016 during a blockade of the Muskrat Falls site by land protectors undertaking what many of them described as a last-resort act of self-defense in an effort to protect a traditional source of food and way of life.
Unless its reservoir is cleared of vegetation and topsoil, Muskrat Falls is projected to drive up levels of methylmercury in the water and wild foods of Lake Melville, exposing Inuit in Rigolet and members of other communities to unsafe levels of the dangerous neurotoxin.
On Oct. 16 more than a dozen land protectors formed a blockade of the main entrance to the Muskrat Falls site alongside the Trans Labrador Highway. That evening some of them were served a Supreme Court of N.L. injunction initiated by project proponent Nalcor Energy. The following morning before sunrise Bennett and several other RCMP officers moved in to clear the blockade and facilitate the flow of work traffic trying to enter the project site.
The Independent was the only media present at the scene.
Bennett instructed land protectors to cross the highway and stand in a designated area he referred to as a “safe zone”. Several of them, including Wolfrey, complied. After watching her father Tony arrested Wolfrey began yelling at Bennett, who was standing in the middle of the highway.
Moments later Bennett pointed at Wolfrey, who was still standing in the safe zone, and said, “You’re under arrest,” before charging at her and, joined by at least two other RCMP officers, arresting her violently.
Wolfrey says she was “shocked” to hear the news Friday evening that Bennett had been recognized as the top RCMP officer in the province.
“I never ever in my life thought a police officer would come over and actually wrestle me, grab my hand, squeeze my hand until it was bruised and I couldn’t bend my thumb,” she says, speaking to The Independent by phone from her home in Rigolet Saturday morning.
“I didn’t think I could ever get handled like that by a police officer. I’ll always remember his face; I’ll never ever forget his face — I’ll always remember it.”
Wolfrey, who faces a civil contempt of court charge for her involvement in the protest that day, says she filed an official complaint against Bennett with the RCMP, but has not heard back from the federal police on whether they are investigating.
Last November The Independent asked the RCMP to confirm the name of the officer who arrested Wolfrey, and to confirm if he was being investigated for his actions on Oct. 17. A spokesperson said the RCMP “cannot provide any further information at this time” because “this matter is currently before the courts.”
Relationship between Indigenous people and police “strained at best”
Amy Norman, a young Inuk woman and land protector from Happy Valley-Goose Bay who also faces a civil contempt charge for protesting outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls project, said she is “disgusted” by Crime Stoppers’ recognition and celebration of Bennett as the RCMP’s “Police Officer of the Year,” and that “honouring [Bennett] right now, after what he’s done, is condoning violence against Indigenous people.
“I don’t feel safe, I’ll tell you that,” she told The Independent by phone from Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“The relationship between Indigenous people and the police is, I think it’s safe to say, strained at best. Whether it’s the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison system, or whether it’s Indigenous people suffering from police brutality, like Emily did…the relationship between police and Indigenous folks, and especially Indigenous women — it’s not good.”
Norman also said if Bennett is “the best of the best in this province, what does that say about the state of policing in Newfoundland and Labrador?”
According to his bio from the awards ceremony, Bennett is a “champion in the creation and the implementation of the Labrador Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) Extra-Judicial Measures committee, a facilitator for the Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) program…and [a member of] the RCMP/Community Mental Health (Labrador Grenfell Health Centre) Liaison Board.
Bennett’s bio goes on to say that “being a status Mi’kmaq person and growing up in an aboriginal community [he] has seen first-hand the importance of developing positive partnerships/relationships through Aboriginal Policing. He’s the RCMP Aboriginal Liaison Officer with the Labrador Friendship Centre, and a member of the Community Conflict Management Group (CCMG) responsible to respond to Muskrat Falls protest activities with objectives to build relationships with all stakeholders.”
— NL Crime Stoppers (@NLCrimeStoppers) May 19, 2017
In an email to The Independent a spokesperson from Crime Stoppers said nomination documents can’t be made public because they “were submitted in confidence,” and that “for reasons of being impartial we do not share the individual names of the POYA selection committee.”
They did say, however, that the selection committee “consists of volunteers only…from the [N.L. Crime Stoppers] board, community organizations, faith based groups, business community, law industry and funding sponsors,” and that “no members of the enforcement agencies are involved in the review of the nominations or selection of the finalists and winners.”
The POYA nomination form explains those nominating an officer for the award should submit documentation addressing the nominee’s “professionalism and dedication to public service and benefit to others,” their “contribution to community, region and/or province,” their “demonstrated leadership and…outstanding accomplishments on the job,” their “performance of special acts or services in the public interest [and] any other information you may wish to supply to best describe why you are nominating this person.”
The Independent reached out to Bennett Friday evening via an RCMP dispatch worker, who promptly returned the call to say that Bennett said he was not available for an interview.
Provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons spoke at Friday’s awards ceremony. Following the ceremony he issued a statement to the press, calling the award recipients “a testament to bravery and devotion, despite the inherently dangerous nature of their jobs. The communities where they work are better places because of their commitment and dedication.”
Mark Brown, Chair of N.L. Crime Stoppers, said in a media release following the ceremony that his organization “takes pride in honouring officers in our province that go above and beyond the call of duty in their service to the community. Courtesy, kindness, understanding, compassion, courage and devotion to duty are key qualities required in police officers in their normal duties. The nominees and recipients of 2017 Awards exemplify these characteristics, and we are pleased to recognize these individuals for their outstanding achievements.”
RCMP Corporal Troy Bennett of the Happy Valley-Goose Bay Detachment is the 2017 RCMP Police Officer of the Year. pic.twitter.com/JSVnT3XuVk
— Gerri Lynn Mackey (@GerriLynnMackey) May 19, 2017
The Independent sent an email to Crime Stoppers Saturday morning asking if the organization was aware of Bennett’s role in the arrest of Wolfrey, and whether it had any way of ensuring it doesn’t celebrate police officers who have contributed to the worsening of relationships with residents in the communities they serve. No response was received by the time of publication.
“We’re already seeing a lot of distrust between the public and the RCMP [in Labrador],” Norman said Friday. “We’re seeing 65-plus land protectors going through all these court dates. The charges are being drawn up and it’s getting so ridiculous. You have so many people…going through the Supreme Court system, but you have the [RCMP] officer in Hopedale whose charges of child luring were dropped.”
In February child luring charges against RCMP officer Ian Kaulback, who was stationed in the Inuit community of Hopedale, were stayed by a provincial court judge because the case took too long to go to trial.
Meanwhile, said Norman, dozens of Indigenous people who were trying to protect their food and way of life are being criminalized and forced through the already over-burdened court system in Labrador.
“All of this is adding up and the distrust is building,” she said. “And then for this officer to be awarded and recognized like he has been is only going to further that distrust.”
Justice and reconciliation coming for Indigenous communities in N.L.?
Minister Parsons didn’t respond to a request for comment on Bennett’s involvement in Wolfrey’s arrest and subsequent recognition with the POYA award.
In 2015 the provincial government committed to implementing the calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Final Report, among them a call to commit to “the recognition and implementation of Aboriginal justice systems in a manner consistent with the Treaty and Aboriginal rights of Aboriginal peoples, the Constitution Act, 1982, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
In his mandate letter, after being appointed Minister of Justice in 2015, Parsons was instructed by Premier Dwight Ball that “it is critical that our government’s decisions are also informed by engagement with stakeholders, including our Aboriginal partners, to ensure everyone’s voices are heard.”
The Independent recently asked Parsons for an update on his progress in implementing the TRC calls to action related to justice. In a written response the minister said the provincial government “recognizes the importance of Indigenous justice systems and is committed to Indigenous engagement on justice issues. We are diligently working with other government departments, as well as our federal and territorial counterparts, to develop policies in response to the TRC.”
The minister did not say if the government was engaging Indigenous people in the province in the process of implementing Indigenous justice systems.
According to 2014-2015 Statistics Canada data, 27 percent of adults admitted to correctional services in Newfoundland and Labrador were Aboriginal, though the most recent available data indicates Indigenous people comprised only seven percent of the province’s population.
The TRC Final Report states “In Canada, law must cease to be a tool for the dispossession and dismantling of Aboriginal societies. It must dramatically change if it is going to have any legitimacy within First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities. Until Canadian law becomes an instrument supporting Aboriginal peoples’ empowerment, many Aboriginal people will continue to regard it as a morally and politically malignant force.”
Throughout the Muskrat Falls protests land protectors and others referred to the RCMP, including Bennett and those who arrested land protectors at the blockade, as agents of a government actively pursuing colonial policies.
In an interview with The Independent last October during the Muskrat Falls blockade Mi’kmaq lawyer and scholar Dr. Pam Palmater said Muskrat Falls is “so much bigger than…a dispute over a dam,” and that its projected consequences, including the poisoning of traditional foods, forced relinquishment of traditional hunting, fishing and sustenance practices, and its potential to displace people from their communities, were part of a “modern day form of genocide” that is also seen in extractive industries in other parts of Canada.
“The basic fundamental human rights of Indigenous people are being violated,” Palmater said. “They are, without comprehensive study or getting their free informed and prior consent, being put at risk for profit. They are not being put at risk for a national emergency. It’s for the profit of corporations. And that’s unacceptable.”
Palmater also noted that RCMP officers, when compelled to arrest Indigenous land defenders, “essentially have gone from being impartial enforcers of the law to political pawns for governments and security forces for the extractive industry.”
Wolfrey has two children, ages four and eight. Asked if her arrest by Bennett made her afraid to protest against the threat to her food, community and way of life, she said “I really think we need to do it again.
“I think we need to go up to the line and start again, because it’s not right. [Muskrat Falls] needs to be stopped. There’s no reason why people’s lives should be on the line for the sake of a job.”
Asked if she thought the agreement reached last October between Premier Ball and Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders would protect her family and community, she said “I don’t think it’s going to protect anybody. Mud Lake was flooded, their houses was flooded, they can’t get nothing from their houses back no more.
“What if next time it’s Goose Bay, North West River and [Sheshatshiu]? It’s scary, it’s dangerous — it should just be shut down and stopped.”
Elizabeth Penashue shares Wolfrey’s belief that Muskrat Falls must be stopped altogether. On Thursday the respected Innu Elder walked 10 km to the designated protest area where Wolfrey was arrested last fall and set up her tent, where she plans to spend several days.