Who’s Policing The Police?

Human Rights Watch hammers Canadian cops for their treatment of aboriginal women

by Lisa Johnson

What does it mean when Human Rights Watch — an internationally recognized watchdog group that normally spends its time observing and documenting human rights atrocities in authoritarian and war-torn countries like Syria, Libya and Egypt — starts asking Canadians and their government to take a good look in the mirror?

It means we’ve got problems.

A new Human Rights Watch report titled Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Aboriginal Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada documents allegations of physical and verbal abuse, threats and rape at the hands of RCMP officers stationed in remote communities along the “Highway of Tears”. That’s the corridor of Highway 16 connecting Prince Rupert with Prince George, BC that’s notorious for a high number of unsolved murders and disappearances.

According to the report — “those who take us away” is a direct English translation of a west coast indigenous word for “police”, by the way — Canadian authorities have failed to address the problem of hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women. During five weeks of research conducted last summer, Human Rights Watch conducted 87 interviews with indigenous women and girls who’d experienced police abuse, as well as their family members and community service providers. They also talked to members of the RCMP.

“The report speaks volumes about where violence against women stands in terms of priorities for this government. It’s very far down,” says Sue Delanoy, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society in Saskatchewan.

Those Who Take Us Away was released in February. You can read it online at www.hrw.org.

FIRST NATIONS WOMEN: A LOW PRIORITY

How bad are things?

The report conveys alarm at the level of fear among the women who were interviewed for it: “levels of fear that HRW normally finds in communities in post-conflict or post-transition countries such as Iraq, where security forces have played an integral role in state abuses and enforcement of authoritarian policies.”

Human Rights Watch calls on the Canadian government to establish a national commission of inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls before the end of this year.

That recommendation has been seconded by the federal NDP, Liberal Party and Assembly of First Nations, but the Conservative government won’t sign off on it.

Instead, Conservative MPs have supported a Liberal motion to establish a (far less expensive, and far less in-depth) parliamentary committee to conduct hearings on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Nothing like saving a dime on the backs of dead women.

“They are somebody’s kids, these girls. It’s atrocious,” says Jaskiran Dhillon at Justice for Girls, a non-profit advocacy group for young women and girls based in BC.

“Canada positions itself as a leader in human rights around the world, but there are gross failures within our own nation. You can’t have a country that speaks about upholding human rights and then violates the rights of its most marginalized citizens,” she says.

After a decade of documenting stories along with the BC Civil Liberties Union, Justice for Girls “felt we had to seek help outside Canada,” says Dhillon.

Prime Minister Harper and BC Justice Minister Shirley Bond called on Human Rights Watch to share confidential information with police about the allegations of abuse. In the House of Commons, Harper said the organization and others should “just get on and do it” and provide detailed information for the police to investigate.

Umm, it’s not that simple, sir. First Nations women who have been raped and beaten by police — and these are the kind of allegations in the report —generally don’t want their identities revealed. Aside from the fear of reprisal — some women reported death threats from cops — there can be community stigma toward victims.

“Unless there is a process that protects the safety of these young women and girls, there’s no way that people are going to disclose their identities,” says Dhillon. “They have just experienced abuse. Those comments indicate that there’s a lack of understanding of the broader systemic and historical context and the issues that have created this problem in the first place.

“The comments of the Prime Minister are extremely insulting,” she adds. “And we don’t want this to [be dismissed as] a case of a few bad police officers. This is a culture of violence that’s been supported since the founding of this nation.”

THE STORY IN SASKATCHEWAN

Those who work with criminalized women in Saskatchewan know the stories they read in the report all too well. “This is happening here — this is happening across Canada. These stories are not new or unique. Good things are happening but we also hear these stories and we need to take better steps to make sure that these things don’t happen,” says Delanoy.

If anything, the situation is worse in Saskatchewan, she says. Saskatchewan has no provincial body comparable to BC’s Independent Investigations Office. “We have nothing,” says Delanoy.

Many of the problems associated with policing abuses begin with the over-criminalization of women in poverty — a related problem that Delanoy says is especially persistent in Saskatchewan.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous the number of young girls in the sex trade in Saskatchewan. So we know things like that happen in Saskatchewan. We need a national commission of inquiry. We need to get to the roots of this violence, we need accountability and we need the coordination of different government bodies,” says Delanoy.

The bleak situation in Saskatchewan inspired Human Rights Watch and various advocacy organizations to officially launch the report in both Ottawa and Saskatoon.

“The reality is that there is a large aboriginal population in Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan is symbolic in many ways, because of the rising Idle No More movement, spearheaded by four women located in Saskatoon, and because of the demographics of the province in itself,” says Dhillon.

She believes the high levels of violence against women in Saskatchewan, revealed in a recent Statistics Canada report, is also related.

To make matters worse here at home, there’s been a huge retrenchment and defunding of important services that could help women avoid criminalization over the past six years.

“There has been a systematic demolition of women’s and children’s programs to prevent violence. There is not enough money for adequate shelters for women, for social services for victims of violence. We’ve lost the Tamara’s House shelter [in Saskatoon]; we’ve lost support for girls in the sex trade; we’ve lost housing supports.” What’s left is a hodgepodge of lifelines that just doesn’t cut it, says Delanoy.

And so, criticism from the international community keeps coming in.

Amnesty International published a report on Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women in 2004, saying that, “despite assurances to the contrary, police in Canada have often failed to provide Indigenous women with an adequate standard of protection.”

In 2010, the federal government stopped funding the Native Women’s Association of Canada data initiative. “As a result, no comprehensive sex — or race — disaggregated data to track the numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls since 2010 are available,” states Those Who Take Us Away..

More recently, the 2012 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child spoke out about Canada’s failure to protect aboriginal girls from violence.

“We have heard about good treatment by the RCMP, but there is often the feeling from women that the RCMP isn’t doing enough, or doesn’t care. We have so many missing and murdered aboriginal women in Saskatchewan. A provincial mechanism for civilian investigation would be a good idea. You need a watchdog,” says Delanoy.

Despite the horrific stories contained in the report, and her experience hearing similar stories in Saskatchewan, Delanoy remains optimistic about what could happen if we implemented the report’s recommendations.

“We want Saskatchewan to be a leader in moving forward with the recommendations. And [the Elizabeth Fry Society in Saskatchewan] is also prepared to be the organization to which women go to tell their stories of policing abuses.”

Sadly, here’s betting that the gruesome stories in Those Who Take Us Away are only the tip of the iceberg. The process of facing our human rights failures at home has just begun.