The RCMP has a "dysfunctional relationship" with aboriginal women and girls in northern British Columbia, in part because it has failed to seriously investigate a series of disappearances and suspected murders in that part of the province, an international rights group says.
Human Rights Watch is expected to release a report Wednesday morning calling for a national commission of inquiry into the disappearances in B.C. and elsewhere and a plan to address violence against aboriginal women and girls in Canada.
The report calls the problem of missing and murdered women "just one element of the dysfunctional relationship between the Canadian police and indigenous communities."
In a statement released Wednesday morning, the British Columbia RCMP said it takes the allegations raised in the Human Rights Watch report very seriously.
"The unimaginable loss and pain felt by families and loved ones of missing and murdered persons is also felt across our communities," the statement says, adding, "The RCMP looks forward to working with our government and non-government partners, as well the communities we serve to provide Canadians with the professional and accountable police service they expect and deserve."
A number of women interviewed by Human Rights Watch researchers alleged that RCMP officers used excessive force in arresting them, mistreated them while they were in custody and, in some cases, physically or sexually assaulted them. Many of the allegations have not been formally investigated because complaints were not filed.
Samer Muscati, one of the researchers who worked on the report, said many of the aboriginal women he spoke with did not trust police and felt little confidence that any complaints would be addressed. He said he was surprised to find that the fear of police expressed by some of the women was comparable with what he has seen in post-conflict situations in countries such as Iraq and Libya.
"I experienced the same level of fear among aboriginal women and girls in these communities as I did in other contexts, where security forces are implicated in the worst type of abuses and are known not to protect the population," he said. "Obviously that scenario isn't the same here, but [to see] the same level of fear is remarkable."
The RCMP statement says the force told Human Rights Watch researchers last fall that the complaints should be brought forward for investigation.
"Unfortunately, five months later and none of these allegations have been brought forward for investigation. 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 statement says.
The report suggests that the processes for dealing with allegations of misconduct by police are inadequate and notes that B.C.'s Independent Investigations Office, set up last fall to investigate police-related incidents involving death or serious injury, does not currently deal with allegations of sexual assault.
The RCMP is investigating 13 homicides and five cases of missing women in northern B.C. that occurred on or near a stretch of road between Prince George and Prince Rupert that is often referred to as the highway of tears.
Wally Oppal, commissioner of the recent inquiry into why police took so long to arrest serial killer Robert Pickton, wrote that, while many people recognize the RCMP is working hard to solve the cases in northern B.C., "there is a history of distrust and dissatisfaction that continues to circumscribe the police-community relationship."
Mr. Oppal cited several factors, including an unwillingness of the RCMP to take seriously reports of missing girls or women, and a perceived lack of support from the force.
The RCMP is already struggling with allegations of systemic mistreatment of women inside the force. A number of current and former Mounties have publicly complained about a culture of harassment and bullying inside the RCMP, saying that female members suffer disproportionately at the hands of their colleagues and superiors. The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP is also set to release a report on the issue of workplace harassment inside the force this week.
With a report from Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa