Highway 16, sometimes referred to as “the Highway of Tears” in recognition of the women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered in its vicinity, in northern British Columbia. July 2012.

© Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

“Grave violations” is not a phrase commonly associated with Canada’s human rights record. But today those are the words the United Nation’s committee of experts on women’s rights is using to describe the scourge of violence against indigenous women in Canada and the government’s woefully inadequate response.

The committee calls attention to a number of issues related to the violence, including one that is too often swept aside as controversial: the mistreatment of indigenous women and their families by police. According to the committee, “Interviews conducted with all stakeholders revealed that Aboriginal women are reluctant to report acts of violence to the police, mainly due to police behaviour and bias.”  

Human Rights Watch heard much the same in our research for the report “Those Who Take Us Away,” which was cited in the UN report. Indigenous women and girls we spoke with in British Columbia described having nowhere to turn in the face of violence because they had experienced previous discrimination and mistreatment by police.

In addition, the UN committee wrote, “The main issue that emerged was a continuing distrust of the police on the part of Aboriginal women and their families and a real sense of profound fear of police retaliation if they complain or make reports of violence.” We encountered those same fears of retaliation – levels of fear that Human Rights Watch normally finds in communities in post-conflict countries such as Iraq, where security forces have abused civilians and enforced authoritarian policies.

This level of fear is unacceptable anywhere. And it certainly should not be acceptable in a country that prides itself on its global leadership on women’s equality and empowerment. Prior to the report’s public release, the Canadian government informed the UN that it rejected two of the committee’s most important recommendations, which called for a national inquiry into the violence and a national action plan to halt it. If the government truly values women’s safety, it should reverse its stance and make sure that meaningful police accountability ranks high on the agenda for both an inquiry and an action plan.