Early in his policing career, Canada’s first Black chief Devon Clunis turned down an invitation to attend the Association of Black Law Enforcers (ABLE) annual awards gala in the Greater Toronto Area.
Appointed to head the Winnipeg police department in October 2012, he made the revelation in his keynote address at the 22nd annual awards last Saturday night in Scarborough.
“As a young constable, I said to myself I didn’t want to be singled out as anyone special,” Clunis told the audience that included law enforcement officers from across the province and Her Majesty’s Prison in the Bahamas. “I just wanted to be given an equal opportunity to succeed – nothing more and nothing less. I wanted to set an example which I did by forming mentorship groups, working as a school resource officer and seizing every opportunity I had to encourage young people of colour. I thought that to be involved in an organization like ABLE would look like I couldn’t do it on my own.”
Acknowledging there is power in numbers, Clunis admitted he was wrong.
ABLE was founded to, among other things, encourage racial harmony and cultural pride in the law enforcement community and the wider society, promote and protect the interests of Blacks and other racial minorities in the profession and work closely with law enforcement agencies to stimulate and facilitate employment equity programs.
The organization also advocates against racial profiling and has moved police leaders to understand that such issues are not resolved by abject denial, the commissioning of studies or simply ignoring valid recommendations that have already being undertaken.
In addition, ABLE has standing on the Ontario Association Chiefs of Police Diversity Committee, organizes the largest Black-focused career fair in Canada and has hosted the National Black Police Association’s annual conventions in 2000 and 2005. The organization also purchased a building under Roy Smiley’s presidency.
“You are collectively setting an example,” Clunis told ABLE members. “That is the synergy of coming together and I think we truly need to recognize that. Yes, we can work in isolation but so much more can be accomplished when we come together. It becomes an unstoppable force moving to help our community advance.”
Arriving in Winnipeg from Jamaica in 1975 at age 11, Clunis reunited with a mother he hardly knew and faced many of the challenges that newcomers are subjected to in a new environment.
“I had every single reason to fail,” he said. “But I was given hope by teachers, coaches and other adults in the community and I had to do something with the opportunities I was provided. When I look around today, our young people have opportunities to succeed, but unfortunately many are failing. We have gangs made up of immigrant children squandering their future and their parents’ hard work. So, it was that sense of responsibility to reap the benefits and set an example that led me to policing.”
Becoming a police officer in 1987, Clunis served in major areas of his organization, including uniform patrol, traffic, plainclothes investigation, community relations, organizational development & support and city-wide operational command before his history-making appointment.
Clunis shared the spotlight with Canada’s highest ranking female Black police officers. Inspectors Sonia Thomas and Ingrid Berkeley-Brown, who were the only two Black female recruits in a class of about 300 at the Ontario Police College in Aylmer 28 years ago, were recognized for their trailblazing achievements.
The youngest of 11 children, Berkeley-Brown migrated from Guyana in 1974, completed high school at Sir Sandford Fleming and volunteered as a probation and parole officer before joining Peel Regional Police.
In her nearly three decades on the job, she has worked in the child abuse & sexual assault, media relations, diversity, crime prevention and uniformed patrol & investigative units.
The married mother of two is the recipient of the Police Exemplary Service Medal and the president of the Caribbean Canadian Association of Waterloo region.
Thomas joined Toronto Police in 1986 after responding to a subway advertisement for police officers.
The Oakwood Collegiate Institute graduate started her law enforcement career at 13 Division in the Primary Response Unit before moving to headquarters to work in the recruitment office. She also was assigned to 54 Division before being promoted to sergeant in 2001 and staff sergeant six years later.
When now retired deputy chief Keith Forde was appointed the training college’s unit commander in January 2003, he recruited Thomas – born in Toronto to Jamaican immigrants – to work for him. Forde also encouraged her to apply for the senior rank position.
ABLE has awarded 124 scholarships worth nearly $141,000 since the program was launched 20 years ago. The scholarships are presented in the names of Rose Fortune and Peter Butler III, Canada’s first Black law enforcement officers. Fortune was a self-appointed policewoman in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia in the late 1700s while Butler served for 23 years with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) before retiring in 1936.
This year’s scholarship winners are Summer Lewis, Ann Obasohan, Ramona Robinson, Timothy Bryan, Jeffrey Andoh, Marcus Thomas and Simon Belete.
A Grade 12 student at St. Robert Catholic High School, Lewis is enrolled in the international baccalaureate diploma program. The honour roll student is the treasurer of the York Secondary Catholic President’s Council and an active volunteer.
Obasohan, who migrated from Nigeria three years ago, is enrolled in Humber College’s community & justice service diploma program while Robinson – an international student from Jamaica – plans to pursue a criminal justice degree after graduating from Humber College’s community & justice services diploma program.
Bryan is a fourth-year doctoral student in York University’s socio-legal studies program; Andoh – who grew up in a police facility in Ghana where his dad was a sergeant – plans to enrol in York University’s criminology program and Thomas will major in criminology and human rights & equity studies when he starts classes at York University in September.
Belete, a Grade 12 student at St. Michael’s College, aspires to be a lawyer.
There were 15 applicants for this year’s scholarships.