Interviews

Above The Law: Police Brutality in Canada

An interview with filmmakers Robinder Uppal and Marc Serpa Francoeur

Godfred Addai-Nyamekye recalls his experience with police brutality in the new documentary Above the Law
All photos courtesy of Lost Time Media


Ever since George Floyd repeatedly implored “I can’t breathe” to Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin before dying from asphyxiation, the majority of the world has been protesting police brutality. Sad but true: Canadian documentarians Robinder Uppal and Marc Serpa Francoeur were way ahead of the curve, having started their investigation of the violence perpetrated by certain members of the police on citizens in Calgary more than five years ago. Their film, Above the Law, is an indictment of what has been going on in Calgary for years as racism and official arrogance have allowed police violence to take place without critical attention being paid to stop it.

Uppal and Serpa Francoeur document three cases, those of Godfred Addai-Nyamekye, Daniel Haworth and Anthony Heffernan, who were all brutalized by the Calgary police in recent years. Addai-Nyamekye, then a 26-year-old Ghanaian student, was picked up by the police after a vehicle he was driving slid off the road and proceeded to drive him in the opposite direction of his home. Abandoned in -28°C conditions (with the windchill) in the middle of the night, he called 911 for help and received a worse nightmare—being tasered and beaten while handcuffed by Constable Trevor Lindsay. Addai-Nyamekye was charged and then prosecuted for assaulting Lindsay.

Irene and Patrick Heffernan share photos of their son, Anthony, who was killed by a Calgary police officer


In the second case, Daniel Haworth, the son of a former Calgary police officer, was arrested for theft, and then, while handcuffed, was thrown by the same officer, Constable Lindsay, so aggressively to a concrete floor that he suffered a fracture skull and a brain bleed, resulting in a permanent brain injury. Haworth died of a fentanyl overdose eight months later—an event his family and attorney see as directly related to his injury. Unlike the first case, Lindsay was charged with aggravated assault.

Uppal and Serpa Francoeur’s final story of police brutality focuses on Anthony Heffernan, an electrician struggling with drug addiction who was shot to death in his hotel room by one of five Calgary policemen who had been called to the hotel for a “wellness check” after he’d failed to check out of his hotel room on time. Accounts from the officers vary, but at most, Heffernan had a lighter and small diabetic syringe with no needle tip in his hands—apparently, this was enough to prompt a cop to shoot him repeatedly.

Uppal and Serpa Francoeur have made a documentary in the grand tradition of social outrage. Its premiere broadcast is Saturday, July 11, on the CBC Docs POV and will stream on CBC Gem. POV Magazine — not the same as the CBC’s show — interviewed the directors by phone earlier that week. —Marc Glassman

POV: Marc Glassman
MSF: Marc Serpa Francoeur
RU: Robinder Uppal
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

POV: What prompted you to take on police brutality in Calgary?

MSF: I was put in touch with Godfred by his then defense attorney who is a friend in Calgary. She would often talk about her work and in this case she said “I have a real doozy here. Do you want to read the trial transcripts and see what happened to this young man?” This was when Godfred had been acquitted of assaulting Constable Lindsay. I read through the trial transcript and saw what seemed to me as a whole rack of really problematic things, touching on everything from the Western classic starlight tour type of kidnapping and arbitrary detention to his assault. The Crown saw fit to prosecute Godfred for a gestural assault. Not even a physical assault. Then, when we actually were able to see the video footage shot from the police helicopter [which supported Godfred and not the officer’s account of what happened] and look at some of the other primary materials, it just really blew our minds how many things went wrong with this one case, both with the police and then with the Crown.

POV: Do you see Addai-Nyamekye’s encounter with the police as being prompted by racism?

RU: It doesn’t start and end with racism. Of course, people of colour and Black and Indigenous people in Calgary are over policed, as they are, I’d say, in all of the country. We know that because of statistics and the population of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) people in prisons. So that’s no surprise. But these incidents still happen to white people and to people who are not under the BIPOC umbrella. I think what you see in the cases of Daniel Haworth and Anthony Heffernan is that they are part of a marginalized population because both were drug users. Anthony Heffernan in particular: you see that there is a dehumanization factor that goes into it. We don’t know what went on in that officer’s head, but what’s clear to me is that Heffernan was not being seen as quite human when treated with this sort of violence. We know that people who are drug users are deemed to be “other” in some significant way, and treated poorly as a result. I think that’s what happened to Haworth and Heffernan.

MSF: I think the point is that the reasons are nuanced—the term “intersectional” comes into play— there’s class, there’s poverty, all sorts of factors. The underlying takeaway is that there is an “us versus them” mentality among some of the police. There’s a quickness with which officers go towards determining somebody as a bad guy. And this was quite remarkable to us because that never came up in trial. There’s the clip from the helicopter recording where Lindsay is asked by another officer, “Do you need EMS [Emergency Medical Services]?” and he says, “No, but the bad guy will.” That says so much about what we’re dealing with here. And that’s not the only instance that we’ve come across, when we’ve heard the specific language of bad guys, leaving the clear perception of them as the good guys. So that, to me, says a lot just on a cultural level as to what we’re dealing with here. There’s clearly a distinction in the minds of these officers, which allows them to treat somebody else in such a callous way and with such a disregard for their welfare.


POV: I found it moving and surprising that Haworth’s father was actually a cop.

MSF: Isn’t that just an insane twist? To put it in narrative terms, it’s stranger than fiction, right? Who could come up with something like this?

POV: Well I guess pursuing that a little further, there is the Heffernan case. We obviously don’t know that much about him, but it seems like he really had gone further downhill. Still, he was a proper Prairies guy from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

MSF: The parents are retired schoolteachers. Patrick Heffernan was a principal of a school in Prince Albert—just a regular white Canadian family, and Anthony was himself studying to become a master electrician. There’s only so much you can get to in a 44-minute film, but there’s a lot more to Heffernan’s story. Constable McLoughlin, who shot Heffernan, had a prior interaction with him at a casino where Heffernan was also in a drug induced state—not acting violently, but sort of quasi-catatonic or something like that. You would think that would inform an understanding of what was going on in the hotel room. That when somebody is out of it like Heffernan, they’re not being violent and that barking orders or tasering them isn’t going to produce the desired results.

POV: Well, no, of course not. What kind of drugs were Haworth and Heffernan on?

RU: Anthony was a cocaine user. Our understanding with Haworth is that he probably was drunk at the time of his arrest. There’s no indication that he was on drugs. Beyond that, we don’t really know. We do know that Daniel Haworth did end up dying of a fentanyl overdose, and he probably used other drugs as well, but when he was arrested, he was likely intoxicated on alcohol.


POV: It must have been amazing for the two of you that there was video footage of both Godfred Addai-Nyamekye and Daniel Haworth being assaulted. It’s astonishing that so much of it was recorded. I mean, talk about golden for a documentary.

RU: It’s pretty staggering. And I think it does change everything. Where would Godfred have been without the video? You’d have Godfred saying, “police officers are lying about what happened and please believe me.” Not just one, but multiple police officers. How do you make that case for yourself when the people we trust to uphold the law and not lie about these things are standing up in court and fabricating? Similarly, Haworth’s case would have completely been dismissed without the video of him being hit repeatedly and thrown to the floor in the police parking lot. There never would have been any charges if it hadn’t been for that video. It showed very clearly that what precipitated the assault was not what Lindsay claimed.

POV: Thank goodness for CCTV, huh? And for helicopter videos.

MSF: Part of what is so disturbing about the cases is the happenstance of them. There’s the fact that the helicopter happened to respond to the Code 200 that an officer needed assistance and that helicopter already happened to be flying near the vicinity.

RU: I think at a minimum you need some sort of monitoring—you need body cameras. But what I’ll point out is that in Calgary there was an incident that was qualified as an in-custody death where a young woman fell, I believe five stories, to her demise. But all of the officers who were involved in that case had their body cameras malfunctioning, according to the Calgary police service.

MSF: It’s the same for some of the audio recordings that should exist for some cases—“Oh yes, they’re supposed to, that’s the policy, but they didn’t turn them on. It happens. No big deal.” And where is the official police discipline for this? Where are the ramifications for the officers? We know that the process is really broken, certainly with Calgary police.

Godfred Addai-Nyamekye


POV: Both of you are obviously aware of what’s going on in the U.S. since the George Floyd case occurred. Your film couldn’t have come out at a better time. Cases of police brutality have obviously been happening in a lot of places in the world, right?

RU: Absolutely. I think it’s very heartening to see the number of people in Canada, who are demonstrating about Black Lives Matter and the whole situation with the police here as well as in the United States. The crowds are astonishing, especially since the pandemic is ongoing and people are afraid to go out sometimes. There’s a deep feeling that people all over the world have on seeing something like what happened to George Floyd. It connects all of us, especially people who understand the reality—people of colour, people in minority communities, Black and Indigenous people. They understand the narrative. And they understand the narrative that the police have put out there, that everybody is being treated equally just isn’t true, and that there are serious issues here. It’s not just isolated to George Floyd and it’s not just isolated to the States. We absolutely have these problems in Canada. And I’ll point out that people criticize the U.S. for not having a federal body keeping track of the number of people killed by police. Guess what Canada’s situation is? There’s no federal body keeping track of the number of people being killed by police here either. And what’s the reason for that?

POV: I would say it seems obvious doesn’t it? We could talk about systemic racism, but it goes beyond that. I think there’s a fundamental disconnect between police officers and citizens. I don’t know when it happened, or when it started happening, maybe it was always that way, but I think it’s gotten way worse even in the last 20-30 years.

MSF: Look at history. The origin of policing as an institution in the United States goes back to the slave patrols. In Canada, the origins go back to the RCMP. And what was the mandate of the RCMP when Alberta, for example, was established 115-odd years ago? To pretend that there weren’t institutional biases against the Indigenous, the French, and others would be foolhardy.

RU: In the U.S., the police have started to go towards a more militarized style, and many of their Canadian counterparts participate in similar training programs and have the same guest speakers. We’re just not paying attention, because if we were, we would say we don’t want that kind of policing. There are other, better models to look to in terms of how policing should evolve. Not the over-militarized police who are at odds with the communities they serve mentality. This type of attitude is very corrosive.

Godfred Addai-Nyamekye


POV: Absolutely. Tell me a bit about Godfred. Have you two gotten to know him quite well?

MSF: We’ve filmed on numerous occasions and have spent a lot of time with Godfred going back years now. Godfred continues to be a source of inspiration as somebody who has been through so much bullshit, and remains such a kind, gentle, and considerate person. He experienced violence that very few of us have ever endured and a level of betrayal through the violation of trust from people at the very institutions that are intended to protect and serve us. One of our first interviews was shot during that period of time when Godfred had been evicted and was crashing on his friend’s couch for six months. That’s a rough place to be. The fact that he’s been able to maintain his spirit is remarkable. We’ve been asked, “Do you have hope in change?” And for us, we feel compelled to have hope that things can change because if Godfred can go through what he’s been through, and he still has hope, who are we to not agree?

POV: I’m thinking also about the Heffernan family. Have you spent much more time with them?

RU: They’ve been really great.

POV: It seems that they had a total belief system in Canada, and now they have had that trust ripped away from them. Is that the way you see it?

MSF: Prince Albert is a big prison town. That’s where northern Saskatchewan sends their prison population. They have lots of friends who are prison guards, and others who are police. They did not see themselves as they do now before Anthony was killed. Their experience has been profound. As Irene, the mother, says, you can’t even begin to quantify and qualify how it’s affected them and their kids. Pat’s closing line in the film is that injustice is an awful thing. You can see the toxicity of it. These are kind, generous people. We went out and spent a bit of time with them at their acreage and they fed us like kings and treated us like family. But I think there is a profound sort of a soul pain, whatever you want to call it, that comes from this experience.


POV: Can you talk about the filming? How was it organized?

MSF: Basically, there were a few stages. There was some early shooting before we got involved with the CBC. When we did have the film commissioned by CBC, we did three different main production trips. Part of it for us was that on a visual level we wanted to see the span of the seasons. Godfred’s story is obviously situated in winter, so that was important. We also wanted the contrast because there’s a lot of passage of time in the film. It wouldn’t have felt right for us if everything was taking place in the winter. That almost would have felt unkind to Calgary [laughing]. And I think part of it too, for us, was that we did want to have time between the shoots, so we did in March, and again in May, and again in the fall. We wanted to have that in-between time to process what we were learning, and also expanding our base of interview subjects. For example, it took something like eighteen months to get the Calgary Police Service to agree to provide someone for an interview. We ended up sitting down with the new chief of police, Mark Neufeld, but that was a long process, which went from a hard “no” through a series of pokes and prods to finally getting the top man.

POV: How many days did you shoot?

RU: The number of days was actually pretty substantial and a lot of it is probably never going to see the light of day. We spent a lot of time with Godfred, which was not easy for him but he was always very generous with his time. So we owe him a lot in terms of his patience. We tried to film the decision in court. We got close. We hired lawyers saying that the judge’s verdict was of significant importance and the public should be able to see it in a format that was clear, but we were rebuffed for reasons we don’t find very compelling. We spent a lot of time shooting while the trial was going on.

The Heffernan family


POV: What was it like for you two to come back to your hometown? When you were kids, like most of us, you must have been naïve. Now you see Calgary’s police and the city’s institutions in a different light. What do you think now?

RU: You used the word naïve, and I think when you’re growing up, you live under the assumption that things are functioning as they should be. That surely someone is in charge, that the mechanisms of oversight surely are effective because everything seems fine. I think for most people in Calgary, and most cities across Canada, most people’s lives seem fine. The cracks start to appear when you live in a neighbourhood that has a huge concentration of police on the streets because you’ve been deemed to be living in a district that needs policing. I didn’t have police in my neighbourhood growing up, but I sure had cousins living in the Northeast quadrant of the city where many of the ethnic communities, certainly the Punjabi community, is concentrated. I had cousins who had police officers in their schools all the time and where there was just a lot more interaction with the police. I grew up in a different neighborhood so had a different interaction with that.

If you talk to Godfred and his friends, you see a very different picture of the city and the police system than you do if you’re in a totally different neighbourhood. So as with any society, I think people in Calgary live in many different realities. Where you live and what your background is will determine in many ways how you see the city, how you see the police, and how you see the governing systems. Coming back to Calgary broke down how much I’d been missing, and how much I’d overlooked what was going on in the city. And how much it’s changed too. Calgary is quite diverse now, and the experiences of new people arriving from outside Canada aren’t all the same. They vary a lot depending on the colour of their skin, their religion, their background, and where they go to school.

MSF: When I was growing up, my mom was a social worker who worked for the province. I would hear anecdotes when she would be doing child apprehension, in which she’d go with police and take children away from a problematic situation. There were moments that she talked about when she wasn’t happy with the behaviour of the officers, or the empathy of the officers. I would love to look back on news archives from when we were growing up in the ’90s in Calgary. Were there stories about police violence in the pre-video camera age or was that something that wasn’t coming to light? I would like to know if we were just ignorant of it, or if it just wasn’t a part of the discussion. I think in terms of the whole experience of coming home I wanted to imagine that institutions like the Crown had better checks and balances in place. But I think what’s been very disturbing is seeing how much discretion is involved in the functioning of Calgary and Alberta’s criminal justice institutions. The decisions about who to prosecute and who not to prosecute involves a lot of discretion, and that speaks to some of the major issues we’re looking at in the film. For example, the choice of the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service not to pursue charges in the Heffernan shooting despite the findings of Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT). It’s extremely rare for ASIRT to believe that potential criminal offences have been committed by the police. But the Crown Prosecution did nothing.

POV: And in this case, there was no video.

MSF: There was no incriminating video. And that was what the Heffernan family asked right from the get-go: what if there had been video?

Above the Law airs tonight on the CBC at 8:00 pm and is available to stream on CBC Gem