Human Rights Watch testimony

Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women (IWFA)

House of Commons

Parliament of Canada

January 30, 2014

 

Good evening. My name is Meghan Rhoad. I am a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. I am here with Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Our colleague, women’s rights researcher Samer Muscati, is present today as well. We would like to express our gratitude to the committee for extending us the invitation to testify on this important subject. We would also like to recognize the traditional Algonquin territory in which we were are present.

Human Rights Watch is an international organization that documents human rights abuses around the world and advocates for policy changes to ensure respect for human rights. Our involvement in the issue of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada began when Justice for Girls, a Vancouver-based organization advocating for the rights of girls in British Columbia, submitted a briefing paper to Human Rights Watch in November 2011 describing human rights violations against indigenous teen girls in northern BC and requesting that Human Rights Watch investigate.

In the summer of 2012, Samer Muscati and I proceeded to conduct such an investigation, with facilitation by Justice for Girls and indigenous women advocates and experts Sharon McIvor and Mavis Erickson. We conducted five weeks of field research in northern BC, examining how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police treated indigenous women and girls, both as victims of crime and as suspects. We travelled Highway 16 – often referred to as the Highway of Tears – where at least 18 – and possibly more than 40 – women and girls have gone missing or been murdered over the last several decades. From Prince George to Prince Rupert, and as far south as Williams Lake, we visited communities devastated by loss, where the absence of answers in many cases has exacerbated decades of tension with the police.

In total we conducted 87 interviews. We talked with indigenous women leaders, tribal chiefs, domestic violence crisis counselors, homeless shelter staff, youth outreach workers, court workers, and, on an informal basis, current and former police officers. Most importantly, we spoke directly with 50 indigenous women and girls about their experiences with police officers.

On the basis of that research and our analysis of policy information provided by the RCMP, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada.” The report, published almost one year ago, documents a deeply fractured relationship between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and indigenous women and girls in northern BC. It documents not only how indigenous women and girls are under-protected by the police but also how some have experienced outright police abuse.

According to our interviews in BC, women who call the police for help following domestic violence or sexual assault may find themselves blamed for the abuse, are at times shamed for alcohol or substance use, and risk arrest for actions taken in self-defense. Likewise, despite policies requiring active investigation of all missing persons reports, some family members and service providers who had made calls to the police with such reports said the police failed to investigate promptly.

Further, Human Rights Watch documented abusive policing of indigenous women and girls: young girls pepper-sprayed and Tasered; a 12-year-old girl attacked by a police dog; a 17-year-old punched repeatedly by an officer who had been called to help her; women strip-searched by male officers; physical and sexual assault of women in custody.

For many of the indigenous women and girls we interviewed, the abuses and other indignities visited on them by the police had come to define their relationship with law enforcement. At times the physical abuse was accompanied by verbal racist or sexist abuse. Concerns about police harassment led some women – including respected community leaders – to limit their time in public places where they might come into contact with officers. The situations documented in our research – such as a girl restrained with handcuffs tight enough to break her skin, detainees who had food thrown at them in their cells, a detainee whose need for medical treatment was ignored – raise serious concerns about tactics used in policing of indigenous communities in BC and about the police’s regard for the wellbeing and dignity of indigenous women and girls.

We do not contend that the information we gathered proves a pattern of routine systematic abuse. We recognize the honorable service of many police officers who work to protect communities in the north. However, when incidents of abuse take place in the context of an already tense relationship with the police they have a particularly harmful, negative impact. They leave women and girls feeling that they have nowhere safe to turn. Not surprisingly, indigenous women and girls report having little faith that police forces responsible for mistreatment and abuse can offer them protection when they face violence in the wider community.

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There are to two critical points that we would like to put forward for the committee’s consideration.

The first: police accountability is a necessity for the safety of indigenous women and girls, and meaningful police accountability requires independent civilian investigation of all allegations of serious police misconduct, including allegations of sexual assault.

Our research showed that when police abuse happened or when the police failed to provide adequate protection, women, girls, and their families had limited recourse. Fear of retaliation for filing complaints runs high in the north, particularly for women and girls who live in small communities, are homeless, or have had multiple contacts with the criminal justice system. They could lodge a complaint with the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP, but the process was time consuming and the investigation of the complaint could, and often would, fall to the RCMP itself or an external police force. The CPC’s primary role was to monitor the processing of complaints by the RCMP, and the RCMP ultimately determined what remedial action would be taken.

While the passage in June 2013 of the Enhancing Royal Canadian Mounted Police Accountability Act made some reforms, including the replacement of the CPC with a new Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) with expanded investigative powers, we do not feel that it goes far enough. The law does not obligate the RCMP commissioner to heed the recommendations of the CRCC, nor does it remove the CRCC from reporting to the Minister of Public Safety, a move that would have enhanced the body’s independence. Moreover, although serious incidents are to be referred to provincial investigative bodies (where they exist), the law does not foreclose the possibility of the RCMP investigating itself.

Even in a province like British Columbia, where an independent civilian investigative body has been established, this system will not ensure proper investigation of all serious allegations of misconduct. British Columbia’s Independent Investigations Office (IIO), which began operations in September 2012, is mandated to conduct “criminal investigations regarding police-related incidents involving death or serious harm.” However, “serious harm” is defined in such a way as to exclude sexual assault. Consequently, it is highly likely that, even with the new federal law, sexual assault allegations against RCMP officers in BC will be investigated by police officers (either external or RCMP).

Secondly, the gravity of the crisis of violence against indigenous women demands a national inquiry. We were heartened by the establishment of this committee and look forward to the results of this work. At the same time, our conviction that an independent national inquiry is necessary for addressing this violence has only grown stronger over time. There is still so much that we do not know about the scope and the dynamics of the violence, as well as the police response to it. Recently published research indicates that the number of missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada may be over 800, but comprehensive data collection efforts are hampered by the fact that there is currently no precedent for the standardized collection of ethnicity data by police forces in Canada.

An independent inquiry could also examine in depth the range of complex economic, social, and historical factors that contribute to this violence. The need to address the problem at this level is painfully visible in northern BC, where billboards warn women and girls of the dangers of hitchhiking, but where many have few alternatives when they need to get to a doctor, go to court, visit family, or attend to any number of pressing needs. Apart from the clear infrastructure gaps – which have been known for years – this speaks to the need for a larger discussion of the economic and social dynamics that put women at risk.

The desire to move forward and take immediate action is understandable, and indeed a national action plan is called for, but action should be informed by a comprehensive independent inquiry with the full participation of all stakeholders, including individual indigenous women and girls, family members of victims, indigenous community representatives, women’s rights advocates, law enforcement, and social service providers.

A national inquiry would represent a major undertaking, but the safety of Canada’s indigenous women and girls is at risk, and has been for far too long.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify before the committee.