The Yellowknife RCMP's new detachment commander takes over during an especially charged moment for police.
For months, amid a stream of police killings of Black and Indigenous people in the United States and Canada, people have been demonstrating against police brutality and racism. They're calling for police forces to be defunded, and in some cases, abolished.
Insp. Dyson Smith says he hears those calls.
"It's difficult for anybody with compassion and a heart to see what's happening, and that goes for the police as well," he said.
"It's easy to just see a uniform and kind of lump people all in the same group, but we have compassionate members, hard working employees all around, that are just trying to do the best jobs that they can."
Smith has been with the RCMP for a long time — 20 years — and has worked all over the country, including previous stints in the North. He replaces Insp. Alex LaPorte, who was posted near Ottawa.
Originally from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Smith says he's of Métis heritage.
When asked how his heritage may inform how he runs the detachment in Yellowknife, a city with a large Indigenous population, the RCMP said over email that "Insp. Smith is proud of his Métis heritage. He believes that all citizens deserve to be treated with dignity and respect by the RCMP, [whether] they are Indigenous or not."
Grappling with systemic racism
At least five Indigenous people have been killed by police in Canada since the start of 2020. Their names are Stewart Andrews, Jason Collins, Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi and Eishia Hudson — who was just 16 years old when she was shot and killed by Winnipeg police in April.
With increased scrutiny on police nationally, and with his more visible role, Smith will likely have to grapple with what even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said is systemic racism in the RCMP.
"I'm not blind to the fact that racism exists in society, and the RCMP is made up of members from society. Every police force and every organization is," said Smith.
He echoed the words of his superior Chief Supt. Jamie Zettler, commanding officer of the Northwest Territories RCMP, who said in June that, "We recruit our employees from across the country. Our employees are part of society. We have racism in our society. There's obviously going to be some that comes into our organization."
Smith said that when he thinks about systemic racism, he thinks about "policies and procedures that are designed with a purpose of hindering or discriminating against people."
"And that is non-existent," he said. "Like we do not have policies that are written or designed to purposefully hurt people."
But RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, in a statement acknowledging systemic racism in the force, takes a different view.
Systemic racism, she said, "shows up in policies, processes or practices that may appear neutral on the surface, but disadvantage racialized people or groups."
Addressing calls to defund police
On whether the RCMP should be defunded, Smith said doing so could limit officers' capacity to to do things like with mental health calls and wellbeing checks.
Some critics, though, question whether police should be responsible for these kinds of calls in the first place.
To this, Smith said what people want is to re-examine how policing is done — and that he's open to those conversations.
I'm not blind to the fact that racism exists in society, and the RCMP is made up of members from society. - Insp. Dyson Smith
"I understand the call, though, for wanting to fund better, or increase funding, for other agencies, and of course we support that as well."
Happy to be back in the North
Smith said he's happy to be back in the North, and that Yellowknife is a special place.
"What's so unique about Yellowknife is the people," he said. "I've always said it takes a special breed of person to come up here and work and live and, you know, become accustomed to sometimes going without — the challenges of the North."
Smith said he encourages officers to get involved with the community: building relationships enhances public trust.
He also said that the negativity surrounding police right now weighs heavily on his members.
"But we do get a lot of support here, and that's nice to see. I'd like to thank everyone for that support."