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Letter from Human Rights Watch to the Government of Canada on National Inquiry into the Murders and Disappearances of Indigenous Women and Girls

The Honorable Carolyn Bennett, P.C.
Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs

The Honorable Jody Wilson-Raybould, P.C.
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

The Honorable Patty Hajdu, P.C.
Minister of Status of Women

Dear Ministers,

Human Rights Watch welcomes the government’s plan to establish a national inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls. As we wrote in our correspondence with Prime Minister Trudeau, we look forward to supporting the inquiry, and we appreciate the opportunity to provide input on the design of the inquiry as part of the pre-inquiry consultation process.[1]

Human Rights Watch joined the call for a national public inquiry into the murders and disappearances following research we undertook to investigate police treatment of indigenous women and girls in northern British Columbia.[2] That research, published in February 2013, documented not only how indigenous women and girls were under-protected by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police but also how some had been the objects of outright police abuse.[3]

The report further documented the shortcomings of available oversight mechanisms designed to provide accountability for police misconduct and failure to protect.

In our submission today, we write to highlight three points that arise out of that research and our advocacy on these issues since that time.

The scope of the inquiry should include police misconduct.

We recognize that the inquiry will need to address a broad range of interdependent topics that factor into the high levels of violence experienced by indigenous women and girls in Canada, including the legacy of colonialism, ongoing systemic discrimination, and entrenched social and economic inequalities. Within the topic of policing, the adequacy of police investigations into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women has rightly been a major focus of public attention and debate. However, we urge the government to ensure that, in addition to allegations of police neglect of violence against indigenous women and girls, the inquiry examine allegations of police-perpetrated abuse. The two issues are inextricably linked.

Indigenous women and girls should have confidence that the police in their communities are committed to respecting and defending their human rights. The indigenous women and girls Human Rights Watch interviewed in northern British Columbia described interactions with the police that conveyed the very opposite. Many women we interviewed described how in subtle but insidious ways, like applying handcuffs too tight or exercising no care to avoid injury during arrests, police officers demonstrated a general disregard for their welfare. In some interviews, indigenous women and girls described criminal misconduct on the part of officers, including beatings in cells and sexual assault.

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. When incidents of abuse take place in the context of a historically tense relationship with the police they have a particularly harmful, negative impact. Further, when those incidents of abuse are met with impunity because of inadequate accountability mechanisms for police misconduct, they can have a deep and lasting impact on the security of a community. 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.

This is an issue that demands attention at the national level. While our research was limited to areas of northern British Columbia policed by the RCMP, we note that reports of police mistreatment have surfaced elsewhere in Canada and under other police forces’ jurisdiction.[4] In addition, the absence of independent civilian investigation of allegations of serious police misconduct poses a challenge to accountability for police abuse across multiple provinces.[5] Despite reforms in recent years, it is still the case that depending on the jurisdiction and circumstance, allegations of serious police misconduct may result in police investigating police.

Confronting this problem will be essential to redressing what the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found to be grave violations of Canada’s treaty obligations with respect to violence against indigenous women.  In the report on its investigation into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls in Canada, the committee wrote, “The prevailing distrust among aboriginal women is compounded by reports that the oversight bodies that investigate and punish police misconduct, abuse of authority and any other act contrary to police ethics are not sufficiently independent and effective.”[6] The report specifically criticized the Special Parliamentary Committee on Violence against Indigenous Women for issuing recommendations that “are too general in nature and fail to cover some major issues, including police misconduct.”[7] The inquiry should not make the same mistake.

The inquiry should provide for the safe participation of the most marginalized.

It is of the utmost importance that the inquiry provide for the participation of indigenous women and girls, including those who are the most marginalized. Women who are homeless, women struggling with addictions, women with disabilities, transgender and two-spirit women, women in sex work, and criminalized women, including those currently incarcerated, should all be able to provide information to the inquiry and make recommendations for change. Ensuring that they do will require a concerted effort to design a process that supports their participation. Special effort should be made to facilitate the participation of marginalized girls, who will face heightened barriers due to their age. Girls who choose to participate should be afforded additional protections.

Among other barriers to indigenous women and girl’s participation, the inquiry will need to address fear of retaliation. Human Rights Watch encountered alarming levels of fear of retaliation by police among potential interviewees during our research into police treatment of indigenous women and girls in northern BC. In the report on its inquiry, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women described “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.”[8] Fear of retaliation by police or others may inhibit indigenous women and girls from participating fully in the inquiry, thereby depriving the inquiry of information critical to its mission. In order to address these very real fears, the inquiry should have a plan in place at the outset for how to protect participants from retaliation, including retaliation by police, and how to respond if retaliation is reported. In order to limit the potential for retaliation, the inquiry should provide opportunities for women and girls to participate without publicly revealing their identities. In our research, protecting the identity of interviewees was essential for reaching the women and girls most vulnerable to police abuse and for conducting our work in a safe and ethical manner.

We encourage the inquiry to explore a range of options for collecting information outside of formal court-like proceedings in order to make the process accessible and ensure broad community engagement. Unfortunately, an over-reliance on hearings and a failure to provide the community with the means to participate in those hearings undermined BC’s Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry.[9] The national inquiry should seek the advice of indigenous community groups on how to engage women and girls, including those most marginalized, in their communities. Given the proper resources, community groups may facilitate the inquiry’s steps to reach out to women and girls and ensure their participation in the inquiry, and to provide appropriate cultural, legal, and psychosocial supports to the women and girls who choose to participate.

The outcome of the inquiry should be action.

As the inquiry’s website acknowledges, numerous studies have been undertaken on violence against indigenous women and girls and more than 1,700 recommendations for action have been made. We share the concern of many that this inquiry do more than add to that mounting total. We recommend that the inquiry design include a process for translating the findings of the inquiry into action. This process, like the inquiry as a whole, should be conducted with the leadership of indigenous communities and indigenous women in particular. The inquiry should be geared toward a national action plan, including time-bound goals and setting out responsibilities for each level of government. We further recommend that the inquiry conclude with a robust education effort to sensitize the Canadian public to the action plan in order to build support for its implementation.

Thank you very much for your consideration of this submission. We would be pleased to provide any additional information that would be helpful for the inquiry design process or the inquiry itself.

Separate from the inquiry, we would like to note that in the coming weeks Human Rights Watch will be submitting information to your respective offices with regard to indigenous women and the rights to water and sanitation.


Jasmine Herlt
Canada Director

Meghan Rhoad
Women’s Rights Researcher

[1] Letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from Human Rights Watch, November 4, 2015; reply from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Human Rights Watch, December 23, 2015.

[2] Human Rights Watch undertook the research after Justice for Girls (JFG), 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 British Columbia.

[3] Human Rights Watch, Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada, February 2013,

[4] Most recently, in October 2015, the eight police officers of the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec Provincial Police) faced suspension over allegations of abuse of indigenous women in the mining city of Val-d’Or. The province has no plans for an independent civilian investigation of the allegations, but has appointed a civilian auditor to oversee an investigation by the Montreal police, a separate municipal organization. The province also agreed to a request from the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador for two officers from aboriginal police forces to join the investigation.

[5] Independent civilian investigation of allegations of serious police misconduct is not mandated across Canada. Some provinces, including Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia, have established independent bodies to conduct such investigations, but others have yet to do so. Even in those provinces with an independent body, only certain complaints may fall within their jurisdiction. For example, in British Columbia, allegations of sexual assault by police would fall outside the mandate of BC’s Independent Investigations Office.

[6] United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, “Report of the inquiry concerning Canada of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,” March 30, 2015, CEDAW/C/OP.8/CAN/1, para. 157.

[7] Ibid, para. 101.

[8] Ibid, para. 142.

[9] For a thorough analysis of the shortcomings of BC’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry and recommendations for avoiding such problems in future inquiries, see British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, Pivot Legal Society, “Blueprint for an Inquiry: Learning from the Failures of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry,” 2012, (accessed February 13, 2016).

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