(Saskatoon) – Indigenous women’s accounts of police abuse in Saskatchewan raise serious concerns about their safety in the province, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to the Government of Canada. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which launched in September 2016, should closely examine how policing failures and distrust of law enforcement endanger Indigenous women.
The submission is based on six weeks of fact-finding in Saskatchewan between January and July 2016. Human Rights Watch interviewed 64 Indigenous women as well as service providers in Prince Albert, Regina, Saskatoon, and several smaller communities in northern and central Saskatchewan. Human Rights Watch documented Indigenous women’s accounts of police neglect when they reported domestic violence, as well as inappropriate and invasive body and strip searches, sexual harassment, and physical assault. Indigenous women reported a deep mistrust of law enforcement and fear that they would face retaliation if they filed a complaint against a police officer.
“The crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada means that police services across the country should be acutely aware of and sensitive to the well-being, vulnerability, and needs of Indigenous women,” said Farida Deif, Canada director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, in some cases, it is the police themselves who are making Indigenous women feel unsafe.”
Indigenous women throughout Saskatchewan told Human Rights Watch that they would not report a crime against them or a crime involving an Indigenous woman that they had witnessed out of fear that the police might retaliate by harassing them or by treating an Indigenous suspect with physical violence.
Concerns about police harassment led some Indigenous women in Saskatchewan, including respected community leaders, to limit their time in public places where they might encounter police officers. This breakdown of trust between Indigenous women and law enforcement is particularly dangerous for victims of violence and those at risk who may be hesitant or fearful to call on the authorities for help.
Many Indigenous women interviewed said they believe that the police abuse they experienced reflects ongoing racial bias against the Indigenous community in Saskatchewan. Canada has made only limited progress to ensure that police are accountable for their policing failures, Human Rights Watch found. Lack of accountability for policing abuses against Indigenous women exacerbates long-standing tensions between police and Indigenous communities in Canada.
“Police abuse undermines Indigenous women’s safety far beyond the direct physical and psychological consequences of any one particular incident,” Deif said. “It breeds a culture of silence that can be life-threatening for victims of violence.”