There’s something rotten in Lethbridge

Above: Shannon Phillips was the former NDP MLA from Lethbridge, Alberta and a member of Rachel Notley's cabinet.  (PHOTO: via CBC, The National)

Folks outside of Alberta likely haven’t heard much about this story. But they really should.

You see, the MLA (that’s like an MPP for Ontario peeps) for Lethbridge is a former NDP cabinet minister in the Notley government – Shannon Phillips. She was the only NDP a member – let alone cabinet minister – to retain her seat outside of the two large cities in the election two years ago that brought Jason Kenney and his cabal to power.

Now look, I don’t like cops. I freely admit it. Why? Well that’s less clear but it basically comes down to my own issues with authority and sufficient interactions with law enforcement to know make my mistrust feel justified. And I’m a cis-hetero white man!

Having said that, I absolutely recognize that Canada has much higher standards for police training than most U.S. states. I also know that the vast majority of folks who get into policing – like the vast majority who get into politics – do so out of a sense of civic politics obligation and a desire to help.


Hero worship, a culture of protecting their own and radically inadequate civilian oversight combine to allow police officers and many jurisdictions to get away with behaviours that are – and of a right ought to be – patently unacceptable to me and most Canadians.

Just look at what’s happened to the RCMP over the last 20 years.

For nearly a hundred years the Dudley Do Right image of the Mounties was synonymous with Canada. Tough. Rugged. Principled. Always get their man. Heroic. Paul Gross’s erstwhile and upright, incorruptible Benton Fraser in the TV series Due South was one of the last dramatic representations to faithfully stick to this narrative.

Why? Because things have changed.

From Commissioner Guilliano Zaccardelli interfering in the 2006 election to an ongoing inability to address systemic racism an misogyny inside the organization to very public failings like the mass shooting in Portapique, NS last year, the force has lost its lustre.

So I guess if the once-famous Mounties have fallen from public grace we shouldn’t be surprised that local Canadian police forces aren’t keeping up their end up.

And look, let’s be clear: what’s happening in the U.S. with policing is in so many ways radically different from the situation here in Canada. Is there systemic racism/sexism in policing in Canada? Absolutely. Are under-represented people – especially Indigenous people- getting a fair shake from law enforcement? Far too often, no. But no one in Canada has reason to fear the police the way any Black man anywhere in America fears for his life with every traffic stop.

And while the results may be different, I fear the underlying causes are far more similar than we would like to admit. There seems to be a type of psychosis that develops among cops that leads them to believe the rules don’t apply to them – that since they’re the “good guys” so whatever they do is necessarily good.

Yes, policing can be a dangerous business. But what has become increasingly apparent is that police forces in North America have taught their members that their lives are more valuable than those of the people they have sworn to protect – that, with or without qualified immunity, they will be protected if officers step outside the law.

Seems to me there are two pretty simple concepts at play there: first, power corrupts. But second is the fraternal nature of police forces – and their unions. We have seen time and time again what is clearly bad behaviour by cops and never – not once that I can find an example of – do fellow cops or their union step up and say “yup, that was bad”.

Rather what we get is some bullshit about “a few bad apples”. And this brings us full circle back to Lethbridge.

The CBC’s Carolyn Dunn summarized the situation like this:

Over the last four years, Lethbridge NDP MLA Shannon Phillips has had suspicions that some members of the southern Alberta city’s police force have been monitoring her.

A cache of newly released documents shows she was right.

Back in 2017, when Phillips was Alberta’s environment minister, Lethbridge police officers took surreptitious photographs of her at a diner and posted them anonymously on the internet. But Phillips believed there was additional evidence she was being watched.

So in August 2020, she put in a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (known as FOIP) on herself and the Lethbridge Police.

The result, which she received late last year, was 9,308 pages on a compact disc. Almost all of it is blacked out in full or in part, but the several hundred unredacted pages released and viewed exclusively by CBC News contain startling revelations.

Over the course of 11 months in 2018, Phillips’s name was searched eight times by five different police officers, one of whom is now retired, as well as one civilian employee.

People who met with Phillips for brunch were followed and had their plates run by police. The photo incident was clearly part of an effort to smear someone with whom officers disagreed politically.

But what’s worse, going back to 2016 – when Philips was still a minister – the search reveals that the Lethbridge Police were aware of aggressive online stalking (my word, not theirs) of Phillips as well as an incident where someone reported being roofied with a drink they believed was intended for Phillips. No one ever took steps to warn the MLA let alone providing her with any security assistance.

This should appall absolutely every single person in Alberta. But most of all it should appall every single cop in Alberta.

Or so you would think. Or at least I would think. But apparently not what the Lethbridge Chief of Police thinks. He pointed out that “the “vast majority” of officers and staff are committed to a policy of objective policing”, as if that somehow excused or trivialized these actions. He went on:

As a service we are dedicated to honourable, bias-free policing. We have a lot of great people here, a lot of good men and women here who protect this community every day and do a lot of wonderful things. But are we a perfect organization? No. I have not seen a perfect organization anywhere.”

“Lethbridge Police Service was not following or monitoring Miss Phillips. There are a few individuals who have made some bad judgments in using our systems — Global News

Well, by that logic, given that the vast majority of Canadians – including those in Lethbridge, presumably – will never commit a crime, why bother having cops at all?? Maybe these “defund the police” folks are on to something!

Possibly the most hypocritical of responses from the Chief was this:

I don’t like to judge people. I don’t believe human beings are entitled to judge other human beings. Only God judges us. — Global News

Well isn’t that special! I’m sure everyone who has ever interacted with the Lethbridge Police will be delighted to hear this.

I’m especially sure that the Black and Indigenous folks being carded by Lethbridge Police only four years ago will be relieved to know that the cops weren’t making racist judgements about them, as one example.

And I’m sure members of the local Blood Tribe will be relieved that the cops weren’t judging them when Lethbridge Police were responsible for organizing violence against their chief and shooting another band member.

No… why would the Chief – who is new to the job – want to distance himself from this sort of behaviour!? <insert eye roll emoji>

So look, while I’m sure the Chief isn’t fundamentally wrong in asserting that the vast majority of cops in Lethbridge are doing a good job, that’s hardly good enough for me or, I’m sure, for Ms. Phillips.

The question is, why does the Chief seem to think that’s good enough for him? And if it isn’t, he’s sure got a funny way of showing it.

Watch Carolyn Dunn's full report: