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Photos and roses are placed in a memorial to missing women in Vancouver on Dec. 17, 2012, before the report from the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry is released.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The civilian watchdog that oversees the RCMP is launching a public-interest investigation into the force's treatment of aboriginal women and girls this week in response to a scathing report from a New York-based human-rights group.

The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP will examine policing issues in northern British Columbia, including officers' use of force, police handling of missing-persons reports, and the treatment of young people. The investigation comes after a Human Rights Watch report detailed allegations of abuse and mistreatment by police and suggested the RCMP has failed to properly investigate a series of disappearances and suspected murders of aboriginal women.

Complaints documented by the rights group ranged from handcuffs being applied too tightly to an unwarranted attack by a police dog against a 12-year-old girl and allegations of sexual abuse and rape. The report did not include the full names of many of the alleged victims because it said they were too fearful of repercussions from police to allow themselves to be identified.

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"What we're trying to do is take a broader approach than Human Rights Watch," Richard Evans, the commission's senior director, said on Wednesday.

The commission does not have the power to investigate criminal allegations, but it can look at whether some of the concerns raised in the report point to systemic problems in the RCMP's treatment of aboriginal women and girls in northern B.C., he said.

RCMP officers' conduct will be tested against the force's policies, guidelines, training and legislation, according to terms of reference posted on the commission's website on Wednesday. It will also look at whether officers were thorough and impartial in their work and try to determine whether the existing rules are adequate.

A spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the government has no information about the Human Rights Watch allegations and had asked the commission to look into the matter.

Meghan Rhoad, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who was the lead author on the group's report, said she is encouraged that the government had referred the issue to the commission. But she expressed doubts about the commission's ability to handle the probe impartially because of its close connections with the police force it is responsible for monitoring.

"They're not a body that is at an adequate distance from the police to be able to go in and do this kind of an investigation," Ms. Rhoad said.

When an individual complains to the commission about a specific incident, the report is generally sent to the RCMP for the force to investigate or ask another police force to handle. Individuals who are not satisfied with the outcome can bring the concern back to the commission and ask it to follow up.

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But public-interest investigations are run differently, Mr. Evans said, and allow the commission to investigate concerns independently – and avoid divulging a complainant's personal information to the RCMP.

A spokesman from the RCMP said the force takes the allegations seriously and is looking for opportunities to help it identify the complainants. "Complaints can be made to the RCMP directly, to the Commission [for] Public Complaints against the RCMP or to other independent investigative bodies without fear of retaliation," Sergeant Rob Vermeulen wrote in an e-mail.

British Columbia recently established its own Independent Investigations Office, which is thought to have more independence than the commission. However, the office's current mandate limits it to dealing with complaints that involve death or serious injury – which means it would not have had jurisdiction over many of the complaints in the Human Rights Watch report unless it had been asked to look into them by the province's justice minister.

Opposition parties and aboriginal leaders have called for a national commission of inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in Canada, a move Human Rights Watch researchers also support.

The government has not responded directly to those calls, but, earlier this year, it agreed to establish a parliamentary committee to study the issue. The Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women has met four times since March and is expected to table a report on its findings next year.

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