RCMP calls for more info about abuse claims in B.C.'s aboriginal communities
Published Wednesday, February 13, 2013 6:50AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 13, 2013 8:35PM EST
In its response to a scathing report documenting allegations of sex assault at the hands of police in British Columbia's indigenous communities, the RCMP says it's "impossible" to deal with the accusations unless the victims are identified.
Human Rights Watch released on Wednesday its investigation into the "Highway of Tears" – the name used to describe an infamous 800-kilometre stretch of highway in central British Columbia on which a series of unsolved murders and disappearances of women have occurred.
The investigation, called Those Who Take Us Away, found that while the RCMP have not been able to effectively deal with the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, there have also been a number of disturbing allegations of rape and sexual assault at the hands of its officers.
RCMP Chief Superintendent Janice Armstrong released a statement addressing the report on Tuesday, indicating that Human Rights Watch has yet to bring the allegations forward to police for an investigation.
“In a written response to a series of questions posed by Human Rights Watch in fall 2012, the RCMP emphasized the seriousness of allegations of police misconduct and that these allegations must be brought forward for proper investigation,” the statement read.
“It is impossible to deal with such public and serious complaints when we have no method to determine who the victims or the accused are.”
Human Rights Watch investigation
Researchers with Human Rights Watch spent five weeks in 10 northern B.C. towns last summer during which they conducted 87 interviews with 42 indigenous women and eight indigenous girls between the ages of 15 and 60 years old.
They documented numerous accounts of women and girls in indigenous communities finding themselves in a constant state of fear. Researchers also noted the all of the victims in the report were frightened about possible retaliation within their communities or by police and insisted on having their identities protected.
“(This report) was about the level of fear that I and my colleague witnessed in the north at levels that we found comparable in conflict situations in post-war Iraq,” lead researcher Meghan Rhoad told reporters in Ottawa during a news conference on Wednesday. “It’s about the lack of meaningful accountability for police neglect or police mistreatment which creates an environment of impunity for violence against ingenious woman and girls.”
According to Human Rights Watch, one woman reported that in July 2012 police officers took her outside of town, raped her and threatened to kill her if she told anyone.
The report also documents instances of girls as young as 12 being 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, and others injured due to excessive force used during arrest.
"In five of the 10 towns Human Rights Watch visited in the north, we heard allegations of rape or sexual assault by police officers," the report states.
Annabel Webb, of Justice for Girls, told reporters that the first response from police responding to calls from aboriginal women is, typically, to treat them “as criminals.”
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Human Rights Watch describes the treatment of aboriginal women, particularly in rural communities, as a “well-publicized stain on Canada’s human-rights record.”
“What this report does is adds to what’s already known,” said Sharon McIvor, of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action. “We know that that police don’t respond when indigenous women and girls are missing or murdered in an appropriate way. What this does is it adds to the list of perpetrators. Every one of the stories in the report should not have happened.”
The organization makes a number of recommendations to the federal government, including the launch, before the end of 2013, of a national inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous and an independent civilian investigation into the reports of police misconduct.
Most of the recommendations made in the report are directed at the RCMP and include the elimination searches and monitoring of women and girls by male police officers in “all but extraordinary circumstances” and prohibiting cross-gender strip searches.
Rhoad hopes officials with the RCMP seriously consider the report.
“Hopefully…this will be a turning point in their response to the both the accusations of neglect and the allegations of mistreatment” she said. “We’ll see in the coming days and weeks and months how exactly that apparent serious consideration of the report translates into action.”
The RCMP said a final copy of the Human Rights Watch report was only provided to the agency on Tuesday and more time is needed to review the contents and provide any additional information.
Opposition demands action
Both the NDP and Liberal parties demanded in the House of Commons on Wednesday that the Conservative party take action in response to the report.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said the trust between Canada’s aboriginal women and the RCMP is broken and he asked for a national public inquiry into the murder and disappearance of the women, along with a probe into the allegations of police misconduct.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said since the allegations of sexual assault involves the national police force, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the RCMP to investigate the complaints.
“If an allegation is made against the Ottawa police force, it’s not the Ottawa police that investigates that allegation,” said Rae. “It’s investigated by another police force, that’s the point…The problem is clearly there’s been a break down in confidence with the people coming forward in those situations that have been described by Human Rights Watch.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t address the allegations against the B.C. Mounties made in the report, instead insisting that anyone with information on the claims of sexual assault come forward to police.
“The allegation we receive relative to the RCMP is apparently that the RCMP won’t investigate something. That is why we’ve given the appropriate information to the RCMP complaints commission,” Harper said. “If Human Rights Watch, the Liberal Party, or anyone else is aware of serious allegations involving criminal activity, they should give that information to appropriate police so they can investigate it.”