As the RCMP initiates race-based data collection, lingering trauma haunts immigrants with painful police memories

Diary Marif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, New Canadian Media

The collection of race-based data by the RCMP can’t come soon enough for some members of Canada’s diaspora communities, particularly for those who have been traumatized by law enforcement officials in their countries of origin.

With nearly half of newcomers to Canada originating from countries marked by social unrest or war, many – particularly those from authoritarian states – arrive with well-founded fears of the police.

The RCMP announced that it would begin last month to collect race-based data in a few detachments, in part to help it deal with systemic racism and discrimination.

However, Temitope Oriola, professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Alberta, says that while the collection of race-based data is a long overdue step, it is merely a baby step in a long journey towards harmonious relations between the police and communities they serve.

For Oriola, race-based data collection has the potential to increase the likelihood of accountability and transparency, but that is contingent on how the data is collected and what is done with the data.

“Having officers exclusively record the race of citizens based on their perceptions opens up a real possibility of intentional racial misidentification or misrecognition of civilians,” Oriola said. “In other words, some officers may be concerned with how the stops and searches they are conducting may make them look.”

For many newcomers, escaping past traumas is virtually impossible when dealing with police in Canada, but the new pilot project is being launched, in part, to build trust in communities and, as the RCMP puts it, “to improve community safety outcomes.”

However, building trust will be difficult for people like Lozan Yamolky, a Canadian Kurdish poet, activist and interpreter, who experienced police brutality in her country of origin.

Yamolky was born in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in 1972. She grew up during the regime of Saddam Hussein, whose police forces were used in a brutal campaign aimed at eliminating Kurdish people.

In 1995, she escaped to Canada from Saddam’s brutality. But the trauma stayed with her, and she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, exacerbated by her fear of police.

The fear is so strong that a simple glance from a police officer can throw her into a panic. For example, one day in 2000 while she was riding her bike along the Fraser River in New Westminster, she saw a police officer coming from the opposite direction. When he looked toward her, she instantly felt threatened – for no reason.

“I lost control of the bike and flipped,” Yamolky said.“I skidded along the concrete barrier and the pavement. Nevertheless, besides my wounded ego, I sustained severe injuries to my hand and shoulder and bruised my leg,”.

Yamolky learned that she needed help to overcome her unrealistic fear of men in uniform. She benefited from therapy over the years and learned that the police were here for their safety and to protect them, but she changed her mind when she witnessed the police brutality in Canada.

Yamolky said her son was placed on medication by trusted medical professionals. One of the side effects of the medicines was self-harm. She called the police in hopes that their presence would help them get the mental health treatment her son needs.

“A policeman entered his room, and from the open door, I saw the officer’s knee on my son’s back. My son was facedown on the hardwood floor, and his legs were partially on the beanbag chair,” she said.

“They pointed a rifle at him, threatened to unleash their K9 that was barking in the police SUV, and bruised him badly as they handcuffed and threw him in the police car,”

The police face an uphill battle when it comes to building trust. A Statistics Canada study revealed that Indigenous people are twice as likely as others to report that they have little or no confidence in police. Another report shows a ‘disturbing’ pattern of discrimination among police services in British Columbia.

Several videos have gone viral in Canada, showing police using apparent excessive force or choking racialized people.

“I realized that the police are scared of us because I wholeheartedly believe that they know the power of the people is mightier than the people in power,” Yamolky said.

Fear: Difficult for the police and community to work together

Sandy Chatha is a life coach who worked with the RCMP and then the Canadian Border Services Agency as a law enforcement officer for over 31 years. Chatha has witnessed the fear that immigrants can experience when in contact with law enforcement, and she often hears about these fears as well.

Chatha says that feeling scared or anxious because of past experiences with police can make it hard for immigrants or refugees to fit into a new community and there are many ways in which they can be impacted. They are less likely to trust authority figures such as police officers. This makes it difficult for them to trust the local police in their new community.

“They avoid community activities or public spaces. They might stay away from talking to authorities, going to events, or asking for help, which makes it tough for them to be part of the community,” Chatha continues. “They may even avoid reporting a crime or being a witness. This makes it difficult for the police and community to work together.

Hardi Ahmed, a Kurdish Canadian citizen residing in Vancouver, has come to recognize the presence of post-traumatic disorder whenever he feels uneasy about encountering the police or happens to pass by a police station because of experiencing past brutalities.

“I woke up at midnight by my family screaming when the Iraqi police bit my older brother and wanted to kidnap him,” Ahmed said. “It was the first time I saw police beat people and they burnt our house for a time when I was just eight years old.”

The former Iraqi regime used the police and army to oppress the Kurds.. By the time Ahmed was eight, he says his house had been burned four different times.

Those distressing events molded his view of the police, forming a more pronounced sense of oppression rather than security.

While Ahmed has a positive view of Canadian police, he is uncomfortable seeing them and feels pressured when talking to them.

Chatha says even routine things like traffic stops or other checks can make someone very anxious, affecting how safe and comfortable they feel in general. This can also affect job opportunities as immigrants and refugees may avoid jobs or activities where they might have to interact with law enforcement, Chatha says.

Oriola says newcomers from countries with extremely militaristic policing practices and limited civilian oversight may find police presence, insignia and paraphernalia traumatic.

“That may have little to do with their experience with police services in Canada. Rather, past experiences in other countries may influence their perceptions of police in Canada,” he says.

Oriola thinks that one of the reasons that newcomers are traumatized by police is they might not have sought or received counselling to deal with the trauma from past negative experiences with the police.

Research demonstrates that newer immigrants have a higher trust in Canadian police services. However, their level of trust and confidence in the police declines over time as they stay longer and raise their families in Canada.

In 2018, the Vancouver Police Department recognized there was fear in some communities that calling the police could result in the caller or friend being deported.

Oriola says that much of the reduction in trust and confidence comes from vicarious victimization through negative experiences with the police among the people they know or individuals in their communities.

“The degree of intensity of the decline depends on the community. This issue feeds into newcomers’ greater awareness of police-citizen encounters, news media coverage of police use of force, ostensible lack of consequences in a significant number of cases involving abuse of minority citizens, especially Indigenous peoples and the over-representation of minorities in the criminal justice system,” Oriola says.

NCM contacted the Vancouver police to inquire whether some immigrants and newcomers do not trust the police in Canada, but did not get a response.


Based on her observations, Chatha says immigrants and refugees often hesitate to seek professional assistance due to diverse obstacles such as language barriers, cultural differences, generational gaps, financial constraints, and a lack of awareness.

“Some of the approaches that I have seen to be effective are community-based support groups and mental health services that are provided in the language of the individual’s comprehension. By raising awareness of cultural diversity and learning to respect our differences, all newcomers can feel welcomed, and embrace a sense of safety and security.”

Oriola said that law enforcement needs to be fair, reasonable and balanced.

“Some newcomer and minority groups feel overpoliced and under-deserved. Cases of excessive use of force by the police need to be investigated promptly and findings publicized and discipline when and if necessary implemented,” Oriola continues. “Hiring more newcomer individuals may also help. Victims’ services also need to improve. In other words, the police need to treat cases of alleged offences against newcomers, particularly hate crimes, with the seriousness they deserve.”

In some situations, police will engage with newcomers who need mental health support related to fleeing another country.

Police-related issues may be addressed if the collection of race-based data is truly reflective of what’s happening on the streets. The data must be accompanied by robust analyses, the dissemination of findings and transparency.

“That would imply engaging with RCMP divisions where minorities are over-represented in police encounters — a major reason behind social mobilization for collection of race-based data,” Oriola said.

Chatha also adds that community policing efforts, cultural competence training for law enforcement officers, and support services that acknowledge the impact of past experiences can contribute to a more inclusive and supportive environment for immigrants and refugees.

“Support systems and strategies can play a crucial role in helping immigrants and refugees cope with and heal from the psychological wounds caused by negative experiences with the police in their home country.”

This article was produced as part of an Inclusive Journalism Microcredential offered by New Canadian Media and Seneca Polytechnic. Learn more here.