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RCMP from across Canada march to a regimental funeral for RCMP constable Adrian Oliver in Langley, B.C.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The RCMP is asking aboriginal women and girls to come forward with complaints against police in the face of a scathing report by an international rights group that suggests many of them are too afraid to do so.

New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report Wednesday morning accusing police in northern British Columbia of failing to properly investigate dozens of disappearances and deaths. The 89-page report also cites numerous allegations that police abused or mistreated aboriginal women and girls.

Researcher Meghan Rhoad said the allegations against police officers ranged from "handcuffs applied too tightly to the use of tasers on underage girls to the physical and sexual assault of indigenous women and girls." Many of the allegations were not investigated because complaints were never filed.

A spokeswoman for the B.C. RCMP said the force is taking the allegations "very seriously" but cannot act unless complaints are brought forward to the RCMP, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP or to "other investigative bodies."

"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," Chief Superintendent Janice Armstrong said.

But Samer Muscati, a Human Rights Watch researcher who frequently works in post-conflict zones, said that expectation is unrealistic when it is evident that many aboriginal people in B.C. do not trust police.

"Women and girls are afraid to even speak anonymously to a human-rights organization," he said, adding that interviews were sometimes cancelled or rescheduled because people did not want to be seen speaking with him. "What makes [the RCMP] think that they're going to reach out to a process that failed them?"

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government has referred "appropriate information" to the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP.

"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," Mr. Harper said in response to a question from interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae during Question Period. "Just get on and do it."

Human Rights Watch researchers point out that when the commission receives complaints, it passes them on to the RCMP. The commission becomes directly involved only in cases where complainants say they are unsatisfied with the RCMP response.

A third investigative body, called the Independent Investigations Office, was established last fall to deal with police-related deaths or serious injuries but does not currently deal with sexual-assault complaints, something Human Rights Watch would like to see changed.

In Victoria, B.C. Justice Minister Shirley Bond challenged Human Rights Watch to provide information on the allegations to either police or a third party so action can be taken. "I think it's incumbent on the organization to bring those allegations forward," she said. Ms. Bond also noted that the report from the inquiry into missing women, which the provincial government is reviewing, includes a commitment to bias-free policing and equity in policing.

Wally Oppal, the former B.C. attorney-general who led the missing women's inquiry, declined to comment on the specific allegations in the report during an interview on Wednesday, but said the relationship between first nations and police has been strained over the years. "I think efforts need to be made to cement that relationship. I think there are people in the policing agencies who are prepared to acknowledge that and we heard that during the course of the inquiry."

Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said he would like to believe the RCMP is taking the report seriously. "This is an opportunity for the RCMP to demonstrate their willingness to be held accountable," he said.

The report recommends that the federal government establish a national commission of inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of aboriginal women and girls and independent civilian investigations to respond to reports of serious police misconduct. It also calls on the RCMP to expand training for police officers and eliminate strip searches of women by male officers, among other recommendations.

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