“Dismissive.” “Out of touch.” “A travesty for the victims.”
With these forceful words, one of the world’s leading human rights organizations fired back at Canada’s national police force and the federal government for their response to the group’s report alleging gang-rape, sexual assaults and other abuses of Native women by those charged with protecting them.
The long-standing controversy over police treatment of female aboriginal victims of violence has taken yet another turn with a new report by Human Rights Watch, which alleges widespread abuse of indigenous women in British Columbia by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Human Rights Watch hoped that the February 13 release of Those Who Take Us Away would spur the Mounties and Prime Minister Stephen Harper to start a national inquiry into the problem of murdered and missing aboriginal women across Canada—a toll that many say tops 600 victims—but instead, Harper merely demanded that the alleged victims of police abuse come forward or be identified. “If Human Rights Watch, the Liberal Party or anyone else is aware of serious allegations involving criminal activity, they should give that information to the appropriate police so that they can investigate it,” Harper told the House of Commons a day after the release. “Just get on and do it.”
But after 50 interviews conducted in 10 northern British Columbia communities—including one woman who claimed that four police officers gang-raped her and then threatened to kill her if she told anyone—Human Rights Watch says many of these women live in a “constant state of insecurity”—terrified for their safety, and in some cases their lives, if they speak out publicly.
“I was also deeply troubled by the allegations we heard, and by the level of fear that we witnessed,” Meghan Rhoad, Human Rights Watch’s lead researcher on the report, says. “Women who were abused by officers were unlikely to come to the police to report such acts. The women have very real fears of retaliation, and we still feel really strongly that it’s incumbent on the government to provide a safe, civilian-led body to investigate these complaints in a way that’s effective, and also protects the safety of the women.”
Police Chief Superintendent Janice Armstrong responded to the report swiftly, pledging to investigate the allegations. “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,” Armstrong said in a statement. “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.”
The Mounted Police said it has no intention of launching a large-scale inquiry into the accusations, deferring the matter to the recently formed British Columbia Independent Investigations Office, which responds to misconduct charges. But Human Rights Watch points out that sexual assaults are outside the mandate of that office.
Demanding that the complainants step forward seemed far removed from on-the-ground realities and was “the wrong tone to be taking, to the victims especially” if Canadian authorities expect women to feel safe reporting police misconduct, Rhoad says. “Going into organizational defense mode is a travesty for the victims,” she explains. “That shows just how out of touch some parts of the government are with these issues. It’s the responsibility of government to create safe, independent avenues for people to come forward to make complaints. It’s not on the victims to come forward in the absence of those.”
The 90-page report is the result of 87 interviews with 50 indigenous women and girls between the ages of 15 and 60 in at least 10 British Columbia aboriginal communities. The report’s findings include allegations that one woman, identified as “Gabriella P.,” was gang-raped by four officers last year and then allegedly threatened with death if she reported the assault. “I feel so dirty,” the tearful woman told the rights watch interviewer. “They threatened that if I told anybody they would take me out to the mountains and kill me and make it look like an accident.”
Two 12-year-old girls say they were Tasered, another says she was attacked by a police dog and other youth report being pepper-sprayed. A woman in Prince George, British Columbia alleged she was arrested and taken to a basement by officers who stripped, drugged and sodomized her, then threatened to murder or “disappear” her family members. Another women alleged she awoke in a cell and her pants and underwear had been removed. “I just went home and cried,” the woman said, according to the report. “Why did this happen to me? Why didn’t they just leave me on the street?”
The report further tarnished Canada’s reputation, which was already besmirched by the more than 600 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women and the recently concluded Missing Women Commission of Inquiry that criticized the police for “colossal failure” in pursuing investigations on the matter.
For one of the country’s leading missing-women advocates, the report hit home very personally. Gladys Radek, from the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en nations in British Columbia, co-founded the group Walk4Justice after her niece, Tamara Chipman,
disappeared along northern British Columbia’s Highway 16 in 2005—a roadway dubbed the Highway of Tears because so many women have disappeared in the area.
Walk4Justice organizes memorial marches every year to bring attention to the many unsolved cases. Radek became involved early on in Human Rights Watch’s research in British Columbia, and she expressed anger and disbelief at the police claims of surprise at the allegations and demands that the complainants reveal themselves. Radek says she has first-hand knowledge of how credible such reports are—she says an officer raped her, but she has not come forward because she is terrified of retaliation.
“That makes me sick,” she said about the force’s response to the report. “According to my books and the voices of the families, it’s very clear the [Mounties] could have something to do with the amount of missing and murdered women. Quite frankly, any one of the victims—myself included—who have been raped by police are not going to turn around and go to the police for fear of losing our lives.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police did not respond to ICTMN’s request for comment on Radek’s allegations, nor did the Department of Justice. Advocates expressed outrage after police spokeswoman Sergeant Julie Gagnon questioned whether 600 indigenous women are missing or murdered. In an e-mail to the CBC on February 16, she said only 64 incidents out of 118 reports are listed in the force’s database.
The 600 or more figure stems from five years of research conducted by the now-defunct Sisters in Spirit initiative, linked to the Native Women’s Association of Canada. It had a list of 582 missing women and girls from 2005 to 2010, when the Conservative government eliminated its funding for the project. If that figure was correct, it is reasonable to assume the number today is at least 600, although the Native Women’s Association believes the actual tally is significantly higher—perhaps in the thousands.
As recently as last May the federal Department of Justice seemingly stood behind that research, and said that it was working to “improve the response” of the law enforcement and justice systems to better meet the needs of aboriginal women and their families. “The government is also working with stakeholders to develop collaborative responses, such as improving support for police investigations,” Department of Justice spokeswoman Carole Saindon said via e-mail at the time. “It has funded [Native Women’s Association’s] work with regard to missing and murdered aboriginal women since 2005, and we have confidence in their work on this issue.”?Sharon McIvor, a lawyer with the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, helped Human Rights Watch launch its report and was in a delegation that took the missing-women issue to the Organization of American States’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last summer. “What this report does is adds to what’s already known,” McIvor said in a statement. “We know that police don’t respond [in an appropriate way] when indigenous women and girls are missing or murdered. What this does is it adds to the list of perpetrators. Every one of the stories in the report should not have happened.”
Rhoad says she was inspired by the courage of the women and girls who shared their stories with Human Rights Watch, many visibly frightened to even be seen with an international researcher. Even more women declined to speak with, she says, despite wanting to tell their stories of police abuse.
“This is an opportunity for the government to take these concerns seriously, and show that abuses of this nature are not tolerated in Canada,” Rhoad says. “We are not the only organization that has raised these concerns. The eyes of the world are on Canada on these issues. This is really a make-or-break moment—to [establish] how seriously the government will take the safety of women and girls.”