The Tachie reserve in northern British Columbia. In Carrier, the indigenous language in Tachie and many indigenous communities in northern BC, the literal translation of the word for police is “those who take us away.” An RCMP report on the historical involvement of the police in Canada’s residential school system found that “The police were not perceived as a source for help but rather as an authority figure who takes members of the community away from the reserve or makes arrests for wrong-doing.”

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

(Prince George) – Reported comments by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner Bob Paulson show the need for an independent civilian mechanism to investigate police abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

In an email late last week discussing the Human Rights Watch report on police mistreatment of indigenous women and girls in northern British Columbia, Paulson reportedly told officers “My message to you today is – don't worry about it, I've got your back.”

“Commissioner Paulson’s dismissive approach sets precisely the wrong tone, and illustrates the challenges RCMP victims face,” said Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “His comments underscore the need for investigation of police abuse complaints by an independent civilian agency that won’t leap into organizational defense mode the moment police abuse is exposed.”

Paulson further wrote that the RCMP has “tried to persuade [Human Rights Watch] to provide the names and specific details of these allegations in order that they can be investigated in accordance with our external investigation policy. If not to us then to any other investigative body. To date they have refused.”

In 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,” Human Rights Watch documented 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 RMCP and indigenous communities in the region, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch expressly withheld identifying details of certain incidents of police abuse in its report at the request of indigenous women and girls interviewed who cited serious fears of police retaliation. However, the report contains sufficient information and recommendations for the RCMP to broadly begin to respond to protection shortcomings. Existing police complaint mechanisms – including the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP  – fail to provide the independence, effectiveness, or victim and witness protection that are necessary for meaningful police accountability, Human Rights Watch said.

In September 2012, British Columbia established the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) to provide civilian investigation of serious complaints of police misconduct. However, the office’s mandate does not extend to rape and sexual assault.

“A police officer in British Columbia who has raped a woman has very little to worry about right now because there is no independent civilian body empowered to investigate the crime,” Rhoad said. “That is a travesty for the victims and also for all of the officers who serve honorably.”

On February 16, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that an RCMP spokesperson also disputed the figures of missing and murdered indigenous women compiled by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) before their federal funding for the project ran out in 2010. Funding was redirected to the RCMP, but police forces in Canada do not consistently collect ethnicity data. As a result, there is no tally of the number of indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered since NWAC’s project ended.

“It is shameful enough that the RCMP does not track the number of missing and murdered indigenous women. But now they have come after NWAC’s effort to fill that gap,” Rhoad said. “Rather than attacking the messengers who have identified its failures, the RCMP should be taking a hard look at how it can improve its record when it comes to indigenous women and girls’ safety.”

The RCMP comments also come days after Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons that Human Rights Watch and others should “just get on and do it” – provide detailed information to the police so that they can investigate allegations of police abuse.

On February 19, the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council will hold a press conference in support of the findings in Human Rights Watch’s report. Speakers will include Mavis Erickson, the organization’s Representative on Women's Issues; Terry Teegee, Carrier Sekani Tribal Chief; Mary Teegee, Carrier Sekani Family Services Director; Vivian Tom, Wetsewut'en First Nation Councillor; and Brenda Wilson, whose sister disappeared at the age of 16 in 1994 and was found murdered 10 months later in close proximity to Highway 16.

The highway is known as the “Highway of Tears” for the women and girls who have disappeared or been murdered in its vicinity.

Speakers are expected to emphasize fears of police retaliation within indigenous communities in northern British Columbia. Human Rights Watch will speak at the press conference to reiterate the organization’s commitment to respecting the victims’ decisions about whether or not to report police abuse.