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February 21, 2013 / Man in the Mirror

Human Rights Watch: Canada: Abusive Policing, Neglect Along ‘Highway of Tears’

(Ottawa) – The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in northern British Columbia has failed to protect indigenous women and girls from violence, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Women and girls Human Rights Watch interviewed also described abusive treatment by police officers, including excessive use of force, and physical and sexual assault.

The 89-page report, “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada,” documents both ongoing police failures to protect indigenous women and girls in the north from violence and violent behavior by police officers against women and girls. Police failures and abuses add to longstanding tensions between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and indigenous communities in the region, Human Rights Watch said. The Canadian government should establish a national commission of inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls, including the impact of police mistreatment on their vulnerability to violence in communities along Highway 16, which has come to be called northern British Columbia’s “Highway of Tears.”

“The threat of domestic and random violence on one side, and mistreatment by RCMP officers on the other, leaves indigenous women in a constant state of insecurity,” said Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Where can they turn for help when the police are known to be unresponsive and, in some cases, abusive.”

Human Rights Watch conducted research along Highway 97 and along the 724-kilometer stretch of Highway 16 that has become infamous for the dozens of women and girls who have been reported missing or were found dead in its vicinity since the late 1960s. In July and August 2012, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 50 indigenous women and girls, and conducted an additional 37 interviews with families of murdered and missing women, indigenous leaders, community service providers, and others across 10 communities.

Indigenous women and girls told Human Rights Watch that the RCMP has failed to protect them. They also described instances of abusive policing, including excessive use of force against girls, strip searches of women by male officers, and physical and sexual abuse. One woman said that in July, four police officers took her to a remote location, raped her, and threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

Women who call the police for help have been blamed for the abuse, shamed over alcohol or substance use, and have found themselves at risk of arrest for actions taken in self-defense, women and community service providers told Human Rights Watch.

“I will never forget that day,” said “Lena G.,” whose 15-year-old daughter’s arm was broken by a police officer after the mother called the police for help during an argument between her daughter and her daughter’s abusive boyfriend. “It’s the worst thing I ever did. I wish I didn’t call.”

Despite policies requiring active investigation of all reports of missing persons, some family members and service providers who made calls to police to report missing women or girls said the police failed to investigate the disappearances promptly.

Women and girls have limited recourse when they experience police abuse or when police fail to provide adequate protection, Human Rights Watch said. They can lodge a complaint against the police with the Commission for Public Complaints. But the process is time consuming and the investigation of the complaint is likely to fall to the RCMP itself or to another police force.

Human Rights Watch researchers were struck by the fear expressed by women they interviewed. The women’s reactions were comparable to those Human Rights Watch has found in post-conflict or post-transition countries, where security forces have played an integral role in government abuses and enforcement of authoritarian policies.

In September 2012, Human Rights Watch wrote to the RCMP to advise the national headquarters and the “E” Division in British Columbia of the results of the research and seek information about questions raised by the research. The RCMP responded in November. Human Rights Watch did not include details of specific incidents of abuse in the September 2012 letter because of victims’ fears of retaliation if the officers they accused were able to identify them.

British Columbia’s legislature recently established the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) to provide independent civilian “criminal investigations regarding police-related incidents involving death or serious harm.” The law’s definition of “serious harm” would exclude most cases of police rape and other forms of sexual assault, however, sending a strong message that assaults on women and girls are not important, Human Rights Watch said.

“The lack of a reliable, independent mechanism to investigate allegations of police misconduct is unfair to everyone involved,” Rhoad said. “It is unfair to the officers who serve honorably. It is unfair to the northern communities that deserve to have confidence in their police forces. And it is especially unfair to the indigenous women and girls, whose safety is at stake.”

United Nations human rights bodies have criticized Canada for the inadequate government response to violence against indigenous women and girls. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women announced in December 2011 that it was opening an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. In 2008, the committee called on the government “to examine the reasons for the failure to investigate the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and to take the necessary steps to remedy the deficiencies in the system.”

The government of Canada has taken some steps to address the murders and disappearances, Human Rights Watch said, but the persistence of the violence indicates a need for a national public commission of inquiry.

“The high rate of violence against indigenous women and girls has caused widespread alarm for many years,” Rhoad said. “The eyes of the world are on Canada to see how many more victims it takes before the government addresses this issue in a comprehensive and coordinated way.”

Additional recommendations

  • The Canadian government should develop and put into operation a national action plan in cooperation with indigenous communities to address the violence against indigenous women and girls, with attention to the current and historical discrimination and the economic and social inequalities that increase their vulnerability to violence, as well as the need for accountability for government bodies charged with preventing and responding to violence;
  • The British Columbia provincial government should expand the mandate of the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) to include authority to investigate allegations of sexual assault by police;
  • The RCMP, in cooperation with indigenous communities, should expand training and monitoring of training for police officers to counter racism and sexism in the treatment of indigenous women and girls in custody and to improve police response to violence against women and girls in indigenous communities; and
  • The RCMP should eliminate searches and monitoring of women and girls by male police officers in all but extraordinary circumstances and require documentation and review of any such searches by supervisors and commanders. It should prohibit cross-gender strip-searches under all circumstances.


Statements about police abuse

“I feel so dirty….They threatened that if I told anybody they would take me out to the mountains and kill me, and make it look like an accident.” – Gabriella P. (pseudonym), who told Human Rights Watch that in July 2012 four police officers took her to a remote location and raped her. She said that police officers had raped her in similar circumstances on previous occasions.

“‘Here’s your choice, you either get charged with assaulting an officer or you take the beating,’ [said one of the officers.] Stupid me I said, ‘I’ll take the beating.’ She grabbed me, slammed me up on the wall and I hit my head. Then she slammed me on the ground. A male cop drove his knee into my back while she stripped earrings out of my ears and elastics out of my hair. ‘Have you had enough?’ ‘Yes, I’ve had enough. I’m sorry.’ ” – Anna T. (pseudonym) who spat on a police officer when she was arrested.

“I had a woman about two years ago who decided to report [a sexual assault] to the RCMP – very rare. I have worked with many women sexually assaulted and only a handful go forward with charges. She was made to feel that she was to blame….You have a system of authority that puts the blame on the victim.” – Community service provider in northern British Columbia



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