Interview on The River of Tears with Richard Cloutier, CJOB/Global News, done standing at Higgins & Main, in the heart of city’s core, ending 2021.
I am thrilled and proud to present my first novel, The River of Tears. It started in lock-down, quarantined with Covid; for a few days I wasn’t sure I would make it out. Part of my heart and soul went into this story, with the hope that some social good comes of it. Please distribute widely and read. I look forward to everyone’s impressions and feedback.
Foreword by Devon Clunis, Winnipeg Police Chief (ret.), the first black police chief in Canada and now the first Inspector General of Policing for Ontario.
Human history is replete with the horrors of social injustice and the valiant efforts of empathetic and courageous individuals to illuminate those injustices, heal wounds, and show the human family healthy ways to coexist in an equitable society. We have learned some lessons, but sadly, we continue to repeat painful mistakes that tear at the heart of civil society. We are at a critical juncture as we examine the social reckoning which has gripped the world in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the divide which has developed between police and community.
Within the Canadian context, we are also reeling from the ongoing cultural atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples and the exposing and reawakening of deep wounds that must be attended to with integrity. Whether justified or not, police find themselves at the epicenter of these monumental social crises. The police have historically been the blunt instrument used to ensure the marginalized remained within socially constructed boundaries. We must take time to examine and understand these dynamics. We must allow ourselves to feel the historic pain which reverberates presently. We must tend to it with a view to our shared futures. We all have a part to play.
In his novel, The River of Tears, Bob Chrismas, takes us on an intimate journey into the struggle for understanding by connecting us to the historic and ongoing tragedy impacting Indigenous peoples in Canada and the strained relationship with police. He seeks not to blame, but to create awareness, which is foundational to the progress of real reconciliation and a better future for all Canadians. As a serving police officer, Bob paints an honest and compelling portrayal of the relationship between police and Indigenous peoples in Canada and points us to reconciliation. The social principles flowing through The River of Tears are much the same as those that led me into policing over three decades ago. Those same principles led to the intersecting of my life with Bob Chrismas.
In 1987, at the age of twenty-three, I joined the Winnipeg Police Service, driven by a strong desire to impact social change. I didn’t like the way relationships between people of colour and police were often portrayed in popular media at the time. It didn’t take long for me to see the parallel between people who looked like me and the lives of Indigenous people in Winnipeg. The relationship between police and Indigenous peoples closely mirrored what I saw on television respecting the relationship between police and black people. It was defined by negativity.
In my heart, I believed that policing could be an incredible tool for bridging the gap between social and cultural groups. I felt that we could break the established stereotypes resulting in destructive marginalization of many groups. As a rookie officer I experienced first-hand the societal dynamics that led to what I often saw on television. I saw how stereotypes were developed, reinforced, and institutionalized to the detriment of many. I saw the power entrusted to those with the uniform and the potential to reframe the narrative.
I can’t recall the exact time I first met Bob Chrismas, but I do recall that I immediately knew he was different. He was more cerebral than most and carried a kind, gentle, caring spirit on his exterior. Not your typical police officer who was expected to be visibly impermeable to emotion. Perfect in my estimate of what a police officer should be. Bob was fully aware, quietly determined, with the requisite intellectual skills to execute on a greater mission. This was a police officer who was changing the narrative.
As the years and our careers progressed, I was constantly aware of Bob from a distance. We never worked in the same unit, but I recalled the many times Bob was brought up in conversations about progressive police officers. His efforts on behalf of those being sexually exploited was the embodiment of the power and positive influence that policing could bring to bear in improving our collective human condition.
Bob was also one of the first police officers I knew who placed a high value on continuing education when most of us were satisfied with the training and development from within our respective organizations. Bob and I often spoke of his studies, and I would share my desire to further my studies as well. I encouraged Bob. He inspired me. As I rose through the ranks of the Winnipeg Police Service and found myself sitting in the role of Chief of Police in 2012, I harkened back to the desire that took me into policing in 1987.
Having strived towards it for twenty-five years, I now had a real opportunity to make meaningful change. I sought an architect to help us articulate this social impact message. I must thank then Deputy Chief Shelley Hart who advised me to have a conversation with Bob. He was in the process of completing his PhD and she felt he could help us. When Bob and I met to discuss my vision for evolving policing in our city, it didn’t take long to see how perfectly his passion and education would help us transform policing in Winnipeg.
With Bob’s help, Crime Prevention Through Social Development became the rallying cry for policing in my tenure. We were going to apply the full force and influence of policing to help change the social climate within our city. Bob helped me operationalize the message, resulting in a true transformation of policing in our city. It brought national and international recognition. We were one of the first Police Services in Canada to change the historic nature of dealing with prostitution by creating a Counter Exploitation Unit. This meant seeing those trapped in the sex industry as victims, rather than perpetrators. We sought to understand and help them find a better way. This became emblematic of the shift we instituted in policing. It resulted in a greater sense of satisfaction for those who served and those we served. The River of Tears highlights the need for more people-centred approaches in all we do in policing.
After retirement in 2016, I went on to consult with police leaders across Canada and the US sharing many of the lessons learned over the course of my career. Bob and I have collaborated on several projects, and I continue to rely on his wisdom as we work to advance policing and community relationships in North America. Today, Policing and community safety is at a significant crossroads. The societal and cultural pressures facing policing and the community are enormous and must be addressed with empathy and sincerity.
History does repeat itself. People often make the same mistakes because they are ill informed. My life and career have shown me that when given the opportunity to develop empathetic understanding, most of us tend to do the right thing. Over the years, I’ve come to know Bob Chrismas as a socially conscious, community minded, people centred, deeply caring and compassionate individual. He helped me to formulate a constructive path to policing in Winnipeg almost a decade ago. I believe his book, The River of Tears, will help us formulate the path to healing the present crisis in policing and community relationships, as well as the general challenges reflected in the many cultural schisms facing society today.
Bob has written a compelling book that speaks to our moment in time and calls us to become champions of social change. He welcomes us to see the world through another’s eyes as we engage with his two protagonists; Dani, a young Indigenous woman searching for her missing sister, and Jack, a seasoned police officer learning to overcome his cultural stereotypes.
The social constructs of race and class have been a burden for too many and for far too long. Policing has been used to maintain these boundaries resulting in a deep distrust between police and marginalized communities. Through Dani and Jack, we see our own struggle to listen, learn, grow, and forgive. We also begin to glimpse what is possible when we take time to understand and appreciate our respective paths on life’s journey. It is time to bring awareness and healing to these long festering wounds. It is time to build understanding and appreciation. It is time to begin to right these long standing social and cultural injustices.
The River of Tears awakens us to the part that we each can play in the historic challenges facing Canada as a nation, and how we can contribute fully to our shared future. I am confident that reading The River of Tears will help us as a society to begin to dry the many tears that have been and are being shed over the plight of those trapped in sexual slavery, the injustices visited upon Indigenous peoples in Canada, and the social constructs that have marginalized so many across our world. Prepare to be enlightened, encouraged, and emboldened to create a more equitable future as you read The River of Tears.