“They tore my sweater and jeans off in the holding cell. There were three or four of them – men – a female guard was watching,” Joy I. told me. “I tried to sit up and they pepper sprayed me twice. They kept pushing me down and tearing my clothes off.”
Joy (a pseudonym) was recounting her experience when the RCMP arrested her in 2011 after breaking up a fight in which she was being beaten up. It was the summer of 2012, and my colleagues and I were conducting research for a Human Rights Watch investigation into police mistreatment of native women and girls in northern British Columbia. Joy hesitated to talk but ultimately came forward to offer her recollection of her encounter with the police. The police, she said, took her clothes and left her in the cell in her underwear for the rest of the night. The next morning the police released her without charges – and, she said, without allowing her to put her pants back on. “I had to walk back to my brother’s like that – no pants; clothes in bag.”
On Thursday night, my colleagues and I appeared before the House of Commons Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women. It has been almost a year since Human Rights Watch published the report based on that investigation: “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada.” While the experiences of the 50 native women and girls we interviewed varied, for many of them the indignities they say were visited on them by the police had come to define their relationship with law enforcement.
The “Highway of Tears” in British Columbia – a section of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert – has come to symbolize rights abuses, disillusionment with the police, and sense of insecurity for native women and girls in Canada.
For five weeks we travelled the Highway of Tears and surrounding areas, where at least 18 – and possibly more than 40 – women and girls have gone missing or have been murdered over the last several decades. We spoke with native women leaders, tribal chiefs, domestic-violence crisis counselors, homeless-shelter staff, youth-outreach workers, court workers, and, on an informal basis, current and former police officers. We heard about how native women and girls feel under-protected by the police when they face violence in the community, and how some say they have experienced outright police abuse, including allegations of physical and sexual assault.
We do not contend that the information we gathered proves a pattern of routine systematic abuse. We recognize the honorable service of many police officers who work to protect communities in the North. However, when alleged incidents of abuse take place in the context of an already tense relationship with the police, they have a particularly harmful, negative impact.
Such incidents leave lasting scars, and leave women and girls feeling that they have nowhere safe to turn.
The system has changed since a year ago – but not nearly enough. In June 2013, the Enhancing Royal Canadian Mounted Police Accountability Act was enacted to establish a new Civilian Review and Complaints Commission with expanded investigative powers over its predecessor. However, the law does not obligate the RCMP commissioner to heed the recommendations of the commission, nor does it remove the commission from reporting to the Minister of Public Safety, a move that would have enhanced the body’s independence.
In addition, it does not ensure that all claims of serious police misconduct will be subject to independent civilian investigation. The investigations are to fall first to provincial authorities. But where such authorities do not exist, or where they have a limited mandate – as in British Columbia, where the Independent Investigations Office does not have the mandate to investigate sexual assault – it is likely that police may again end up investigating police. Even if the police are from separate forces, this arrangement falls short of the standard of police accountability that Canadians deserve.
We also join the Native Women’s Association of Canada and many others in calling on the government to reconsider its opposition to a national inquiry into the violence described by native women and girls.
Yes, a national inquiry is a major undertaking, but the gravity of the situation demands it. Some have argued that resources would be better spent on action to address the violence now. However, an effective action plan will require a thorough examination of the complex factors at work, from policing to the larger economic and historical underpinnings of the violence. A national inquiry would present the opportunity for that examination to happen through a politically independent process. With the full participation of all concerned – including most importantly native women, girls, and their communities – a national inquiry could chart a path toward a safer future.
Meghan Rhoad is a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada.” She tweets at @MGRhoad.