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Dispatches: Abuse of Canada's Indigenous Women Should be Properly Investigated

Upcoming Inquiry Needs to Probe All Allegations, Including Involvement of Police

The Canadian government is on the verge of launching a historic national public inquiry into the murders and disappearances of hundreds of indigenous women and girls. What remains to be seen is how much scope and power the inquiry will be given to delve into the issue.

In northern British Columbia, a highway sign warns girls of the dangers of hitchhiking along the Highway of Tears. © 2012 Samer Muscati

To have any hope of success, it’s critical the inquiry examine the role of police in this problem. But terms of reference leaked to the media this week contain no specific mention of policing. Instead, they broadly allude to “underlying social, economic, cultural, historical and institutional causes contributing to the ongoing violence…” That may or may not include police, depending on how those words are interpreted.

This issue is too important to be left up to interpretation. We appreciate reassurances from the government that the inquiry will address policing, and we recognize that the terms are not final. However, by the time this document is finalized, it should be explicit that the police fall within the mandate of the inquiry.

If the inquiry is to get to the bottom of the deaths and disappearances of indigenous women over many decades, it should take a hard look at the police forces tasked with preventing and responding to the violence. As we wrote to the government in February, that includes investigating allegations not only that police ignored violence against indigenous women and girls, but that in some cases they were the perpetrators.

In northern British Columbia, we documented abuse allegations that ranged from handcuffs applied tight enough to break the skin to sexual assault. It’s not surprising that many of the women reported having little faith that the same police forces responsible for their mistreatment could offer adequate protection from violence in the wider community.

To restore faith in the system, police officers should be held accountable for misconduct. The leaked draft instructs the inquiry commissioners to refer information regarding potential misconduct to “appropriate authorities.” If that means the existing complaint mechanisms at the national and provincial levels, it frequently ends up with police investigating other police – hardly a recipe for shoring up confidence in the system.

There is time yet to address these weaknesses. We urge all involved in negotiating the final terms to ensure the inquiry has the mandate it needs to address this grave problem.

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