Indigenous woman seeking apology from Toronto police after case of mistaken identity

Sara Pitawanakwat says she was in bed with her eight-year-old daughter when a knock at the door startled them around 10 p.m. on April 22. 

“I answered the door without unlocking it first because I asked who it was. I got the response it was Toronto police and I said, ‘What are you here for?'” she recalled.

Pitawanakwat, who is from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island but now lives in Toronto, said police were looking for a male suspect. When they relayed the person’s name, she told them they had the wrong address.

But the officers persisted, she said. 

“They said, ‘That’s fine, if you don’t want to cooperate with us, we can arrest you for harbouring a fugitive,'” she told CBC News. 

“I was just really shocked that they were going this far. And I just kept telling them they have a mistaken identity,” she said. Pitawanakwat added the officers also threatened to arrest her 30-year-old son who lives in the home with her.

While Pitawanakwat understands police officers have a job to do, she says the interaction left her shaken, and brought up previous her trauma as a survivor of the Sixties Scoop — when thousands of Indigenous children were removed from their homes and placed with non-Indigenous foster or adoptive parents between 1951 and 1991, and lost their cultural identities as a result.  

In response to questions about the case from CBC News, Toronto police say they are dedicated to building stronger relationships with Indigenous people, but organizations like Native Child and Family Services of Toronto say there’s still work to be done to improve the relationship between the police and Indigenous communities in Canada. 

Pitawanakwat says that night she reluctantly brought her son to the door, so they could show police his ID and confirm he wasn’t the person they were looking for. She says the officers were masked, but one of them was getting close to her and she had to ask him to back up.

“I was fearful they were going to barge into the house because at one point they said, ‘It’s fine if you don’t want to co-operate with us. We’ll pass information along and we’ll get a warrant and we’ll bust down your door,'” she said. 

Pitawanakwat says she offered to let the two officers walk through her apartment because she didn’t want them coming back.

“I didn’t know what to do to convince them otherwise.”

She said they looked around and the interaction ended shortly after, but it continued to upset her days later.

Through tears she explained how she associated the incident with her childhood trauma.

“I was taken away from my parents multiple times as a child. Police banging on your door, us being taken away by police and being taken away to some home, I still have a hard time with that,” she said.

Pitawanakwat says since the incident she has spoken with Toronto police to ensure her name was removed from the case.

“There’s so much trauma that some Indigenous people carry,” she said. “It takes one wrong episode to really bring all that back.”

‘What I would like to see is a more soft entry,’ advocate says

Jeffrey Schiffer, the executive director at Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, says when he heard Pitawanakwat’s story, he felt it was another example of police rushing into a situation where they don’t have all the information.

“And they’re not necessarily set up for success in addressing it in a good way,” he said.

Schiffer says his team has been working with community members in the Scarborough area to develop an Indigenous model for crisis response and community safety.

“I don’t think police officers really understand the intergenerational impact community members experience even when they see a uniformed police officer,” he said, adding that in many cases these communities are often afraid to call police.

Jeffrey Schiffer, the executive director of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, says his team has been working with community members in the Scarborough area to develop an Indigenous model for crisis response and community safety. (Submitted by Jeffrey Schiffer)

“I think a lot of Canadians now through Truth and Reconciliation and a lot of the other discourse are beginning to understand that policing and social work have had a terrible impact on Indigenous people, but I don’t think they really fully comprehend what that means.”

Schiffer says he understands that when there is an investigation or when criminal charges are involved, that police need to act quickly, and may not have all of the information on who is on the other side of the door.

“But what I would like to see is a more soft entry, more consideration of the context, more back and forth, more willingness to have that conversation,” he said.

Schiffer says his organization is happy to see the city taking some initial steps to empower communities to take on a community safety response, but says there’s still a long way to go.

“I think this could have been handled a different way,” he said.

Toronto Police respond

In a statement, Toronto police say the service is dedicated to building stronger relationships with Indigenous people, adding it was one of the first large urban police services to create a unit specifically for the purpose of meeting the needs of Aboriginal communities. 

The statement says training includes a component specific to the First Peoples and learnings from past and present experiences and the service will also be incorporating training into its Race-based Data Collection Strategy. 

“The unit has expanded its mandate, outreach efforts and community partnerships. In addition, the Aboriginal Peacekeeping Unit is now supported by Aboriginal Liaison Officers across the Service who provide direct support to the community as well as acting as a resource of information and advice to their fellow officers,” the statement reads.

Police say they are actively working to locate the suspect in this case and the investigation is  ongoing. They did not comment specifically on the interaction with Pitawanakwat.

Pitawanakwat says she has filed a complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director. She wants police officers to be more aware of how they approach Indigenous people, and she also wants an apology. She says the incident also left a mark on her eight-year-old daughter.

“She’s said since she was four she wanted to be a police officer and that night she said, ‘Mom, I’ll never be a police officer who treats anyone that way,'” she said.

“I want an apology because what they did was wrong, absolutely wrong.”

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