"I’ve been a police officer for nine years now and I’ve been in multi-million dollar homes and I’ve been in shacks; I’ve been in homeless people’s boxes; I’ve pulled over $100,000 cars and little rust buckets. The one thing that I’ve picked up is race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, culture, political belief, career, sports – it all has nothing to do with anything. Either you’re a jerk, or you’re not. It’s as simple as that."
SURREY â€” When you think of an RCMP officer, what is the first image that comes to mind?
For most of us, we think of the iconic image conjured up from history books and Hollywood movies: The RCMP Musical Ride; a tall, mustachioed white man sitting ram-rod straight astride a black horse; a long column of red-serge clad Mounties riding westward to bring law and order to the Canadian prairies; Sgt. Preston of the Yukon; Dudley Doright; Nelson Eddy; a symbol of Canada so famous they have at times graced our coins and $50 bills.
Or how about a shortish, middle-aged First Nations man with arms covered in tattoos and clutching a skateboard?
The romanticized icon of yore clashes with the reality of policing in the 21st century in a nation that prides itself on the notion of multiculturalism even though we’re not quite sure what that means. The legendary RCMP paramilitary soldier who tamed the west and graced millions of postcards and postage stamps might have a tough time connecting with residents of our modern urban society.
Today’s RCMP is comprised of men and women of all ethnic backgrounds from across the country. Troy Derrick is a hereditary chief with the Gitxsan First Nation who is also a certified Red Seal chef, car nut and lifelong skateboarder. He may not look like the traditional recruit for the Queen’s Cowboys, but his rÃ©sumÃ© makes him uniquely prepared for the job.
"I’m wearing a police uniform and people see that. I’m a First Nations person and people see that. I have a lot of tattoos and people see that. I have a skateboard in my hand and people see that. So before they have even met me, they’ve started to judge me," the 37-year-old Derrick says.
"Don’t judge me by my job, judge me by my work. You don’t have to be a police officer to get involved in your community, to be a role model, or to make a difference in your community. We always wait for somebody to come along and it’s never going to happen. And if that person comes along and doesn’t do it the way we want, we blame them. Well get off your butts and do it yourself. We all have it within ourselves to do it so why not just do it? Today is that someday and you are that somebody."
Derrick’s sage advice is not something he arrived at on a whim or by reading a book. It’s based on a lifetime of experience, first as a child growing up in B.C.’s northern Interior and then later as a chef followed by nine years working with the RCMP in Surrey.
Originally from Smithers, Derrick’s family later moved to the area in and around Prince George. At the age of 10, a quick two-minute snippet in a Hollywood movie caught his eye. The movie was Back to the Future, and the scene in question depicted the hero skateboarding through his neighbourhood.
Derrick was transfixed by the scene and watched it repeatedly. Shortly afterward, he asked his parents for a skateboard. One small problem: the community he lived in was serviced by dirt roads so there was nowhere to ride it.
Two years later, after the family moved into Prince George proper, the youngster began pestering his parents again for a skateboard.
The time was right and he purchased his first set of wheels at the Northern Hardware store.
"I still remember the day we picked it up," Derrick says with a wide grin. "It was pretty cool. It was a wooden board with metal trucks and rubbery wheels from Dominion Skates, a Canadian company. I didn’t know if it was a good deal, but I finally had a skateboard.
"When I stood on it for the first time there was this great feeling and I knew that this was it. I was hugely interested in doing it and I finally was ready to do it."
Prince George had a small but enthusiastic skateboarding community. Everybody knew each other and supported each others’ efforts regardless of their ethnic background.
Derrick also played baseball at the time, but the atmosphere there was far less welcoming. Even though he loved baseball, the coach of the team poisoned the atmosphere at the ballpark. The coach, an RCMP corporal, belittled Derrick for his First Nations heritage and for being a skateboarder. The coach’s harsh words were picked up by other players and they started harassing Derrick as well. Before the season was over, Derrick had enough and one day he walked off the field and hopped onto a skateboard for good.
"It was one of those things that even though I was only 14 and didn’t understand what I was doing at the time, I kind of formulated this view that no matter how much people bug me and pick on me, I’m never going to do that. I’m never going to be that kind of person nor would I ever behave the way these people had treated me."
Sadly, the experience weighed on Derrick and he began denying his First Nation’s heritage.
Over the next several years, he managed to complete his high school diploma, but he did not show much interest in academic pursuits. He was at a loss about what he wanted to do with his life career-wise, but he definitely was not with direction.
"I may not have known what I wanted to be, but I definitely knew what I didn’t want to be," he says. "I knew I didn’t want to be a jerk, I didn’t want to be disrespectful, I didn’t want to be the lazy Indian or the drunken Indian. I just didn’t want to come across as any of those things."
One of his sisters suggested he try cooking. Derrick was leery of the idea and he describes his culinary skills at the time as less than encouraging.
"Man I couldn’t even boil water, heat toast or make Kraft Dinner," he says with a laugh.
While skeptical, Derrick decided to give it a shot and he enrolled in the Debrulle French Culinary School in Vancouver. He learned all aspects of cooking for fine dining and was surprised to discover it was something that he enjoyed.
"It clicked for me," he says. "I just kind of understood it. It was weird for me because I was never good at academics and bookwork and that kind of schooling, but this was hands on and I liked that."
After finishing cooking school, Derrick worked on Mayne Island for several years at the swanky Oceanwood Country Inn where long days and hard work were rewarded when he earned his Red Seal chef designation.
After four years there, Derrick returned to the Mainland where he worked as an assistant chef instructor in Vancouver for a school dedicated to adult education for First Nations students. It was here that he began to connect with his First Nations roots. The school moved to Surrey eight months later and Derrick found himself taking on more of an instruction role in the classroom.
"I would always tell my students that you can do whatever you want in this country," Derrick says. "You can go back to school, change careers – whatever you want. We are so blessed to have so many choices and options. The Olympics had just been announced for Vancouver and I told my students it was a great opportunity because one of the things tourists like to do when they visit a country is to try the food."
COMMITTED TO THE KIDS
Derrick’s idea of pursing whatever career you want was challenged one day when one of his students posed a simple question: "Chef Troy, what about you? Are you doing everything you can do?" The student wanted to know if Derrick was pushing himself to try new things or was content with where he was. Derrick responded by asking the student what he thought was the toughest thing a First Nations person could do.
"Why don’t you try becoming a cop? We all hate them anyway," was the answer.
This response was jarring for Derrick.
It forced him to recall all of his childhood memories of encounters with police – running from them for skateboarding where he wasn’t supposed to; being taken home in the back of a cruiser when he was finally caught for skateboarding; being taken home another time for a chat with his parents about being a skateboarder; being tormented and belittled in front of his teammates by the baseball coach for being First Nations.
The issues all came flooding back, but rather than turn his back on them, he faced them head on. Derrick realized that while most First Nations interactions with the national police force have been negative, there must be more to what policing is about than just harassing certain groups of people.
"There had to be more to it," he says. "If you’re bummed out or worried about a different group or culture, then maybe you don’t understand them. The same with policing. Why do we have to wait for them to come and learn about us and our cultures, why don’t we try and learn more about them? That way they might become more open to learning about us. Why don’t we take the first step?" In 2005, Derrick applied to join the RCMP and successfully completed his training. He was then assigned to the Surrey detachment where his main role was as the RCMP presence on the Semiahmoo First Nations reserve in South Surrey.
It wasn’t long, however, before his interest in working with the community began to increase his profile. He started a physical education boot camp for youth called Code Blue, a program that has since expanded to other communities.
"I’ve worked for years with a non-profit group putting on basketball tournaments for kids and I totally understand where Troy is coming from," said RCMP Sgt. Jet Sunner.
"He’s totally committed to what he does and he loves the kids. I’ll be walking down the street with him and he seems to know everybody. I’ve also been with him on the Semiahmoo reserve and everybody there is like family to him.
"Kids come up to him and give him hugs and say hello and it’s pretty cool to see. It’s a personality thing and he definitely has it. Kids are able to see past the uniform and they know he’s genuine. It’s an amazing energy that he has."
SKATEBOARDING ‘OPENS DOORS’
Derrick also remained active as a skateboarder. He often took his board to local parks to relax and just enjoy the feel of the wheels rolling under his feet. He joined the RCMP to bridge a gap between the First Nations people and the police, but it wasn’t long before he found himself reaching across another cultural divide of misunderstanding, this one concerning the police and another disaffected group – skateboarders.
At the Cloverdale Rodeo several years ago, Derrick was walking from the Aboriginal Pavilion to a showcase for youth. In between the two exhibits was a skateboard competition that was being judged by Canadian skateboard legend Kevin Harris. Derrick had met Harris as a teenager and was profoundly influenced by his message that anyone can do what they set out to do.
Derrick walked into the event and met Harris for a second time and told him about the impact the veteran skater had on his and other kids lives. Derrick was so giddy about the encounter, he borrowed a skateboard and did a few tricks on the pavilion floor.
It wasn’t long afterward that the skateboarding cop was a common sight at Surrey’s skate parks. Derrick regularly teams up with Surrey skate pro Andy Anderson to give presentations to kids across the city.
"At first it was a hindrance," Derrick says of his skateboarding as an RCMP officer. "I used to get bugged about it, mainly just jokes, but people would say, ‘When are you going to grow up; why do you keep doing it?’ Well come on man, why do adults play hockey and baseball? Because it’s fun. So why do I skateboard? Because it’s fun.
"Skateboarding opens the door for me to connect with kids. When they see me skateboarding it humanizes the position. There’s been too much of us against them for so long, but how do we break that down? The one thing we all have in common is community. The First Nations people aren’t going anywhere; the skateboarders aren’t going anywhere; the hockey players and football players aren’t going anywhere; and the cops aren’t going anywhere because we are all part of the community.
"If you break the word down you to its simplest form you get common unity. We’re all here together and as long as we respect ourselves and everybody else, we can all celebrate our choices without hurting anybody."