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Opinion Sexual abuse: When calling the police isn’t an option

Every day for a month, at least one indigenous woman has called an anonymous Quebec hotline to complain about abuse at the hands of police. Some days, there have been more than one.

The hotline was set up in early April as part of an investigation into allegations of abuse in Val-d'Or, Que., which became public in a Radio-Canada documentary last year. In it, women from the town and nearby Algonquin communities alleged that Sûreté du Québec officers regularly demanded that they perform sexual acts, as well as physically assaulted them or drove them far out of town and left them in cold weather.

Montreal police are now looking into the Val-d'Or allegations, where eight officers were initially being investigated last fall (two have since been cleared). In setting up the hotline, which 44 women called between April 6 and May 12, Quebec Native Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley said the province is trying to correct issues of the past. "The confidence has been shaken," he said.

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That indigenous women have a crisis of confidence in police is no surprise: The entire country has played down the violence poisoning their lives, including by those paid to serve and protect them. But the disquiet should reach much further.

Two weeks ago, veteran Toronto police officer Christopher Heard was charged with sexual assault after an investigation by Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, which alleges that he assaulted a young woman last November after offering her a ride home from the downtown club district. He also faces another SIU sexual-assault charge in a similar case from last September.

Toronto is far from Val-d'Or, and both places are far from St. John's, where a police constable has been charged with sexual assault of a young woman while on duty in 2014. In British Columbia, a former RCMP communications officer, Tim Shields, has been charged with the alleged sexual assault of a civilian employee of the force while he was still an officer. He also faces two civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual harassment.

Among recent high-profile cases there is the 2014 resignation of Hamilton police sergeant Derek Mellor, who pleaded guilty to nine sexual misconduct charges under the Ontario Police Services Act, including engaging in sexual activity with the mother of a woman whose human-trafficking case he was working on (the resignation ended his prosecution under the Police Services Act).

One can choose to see either a pattern in such cases involving police, or coincidences.

"I wouldn't expect that it's rampant across all sections of all police forces," Neil Boyd, director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, told me. While he said he has "no doubt that individual officers behaved in a horrible fashion towards women," Prof. Boyd said that the simple number of incidents, and the number of officers involved, must be considered alongside the "proliferation" of the problem.

Well, every time I learn of assault charges against a police officer, I remember that there's a class-action suit pending by 400 female RCMP officers and civilian workers, alleging decades of abuse and harassment. And according to Ontario's SIU, sexual-assault allegations were the second highest type of complaint about on-duty officers brought to its attention in 2014-15 (the top complaint was about assaults in custody).

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One Saturday last October, every officer at the station where the Val-d'Or officers work called in sick or took a day off, apparently in solidarity with their colleagues. "That's what they do, they will protect each other," one of the women in the Radio-Canada documentary had said months earlier, when asked why she didn't report her abuse.

It was because of the fears of the women of Val-d'Or that Quebec set up the hotline. Anonymous reporting of sexual assaults exists in other parts of the country, often with rape-crisis centres acting as intermediaries between victims and police, including in B.C. and Ontario, and in Whitehorse, where a hotline was launched in 2014, four years after the acquittal of two RCMP officers on sexual-assault charges led to a review of police in Yukon.

Not all hotlines exist solely for reporting assaults by police, but one centre manager told me that a fair number of the calls that come in are about them.

From sea to shining sea, Canadian women want to report abuse without police learning their names. To some people, that might constitute a crisis.

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