Renu Mandhane is the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission
The Globe and Mail's groundbreaking Unfounded investigation exposes how police services across Canada are "ill-equipped or unwilling to investigate sexual-assault cases." With unfounded rates of 19 per cent across Canada and as high as nearly 60 per cent in some jurisdictions, part of the answer to this problem must lie in addressing the systemic bias against women – which is a human-rights issue.
Like much of the systemic discrimination in the criminal-justice system, failure to properly investigate and prosecute sexual offences likely begins with an overreliance, whether consciously or unconsciously, on stereotypes. These stereotypes or rape myths are myriad and well-documented: stereotypes about the types of women who get assaulted, how they should behave during an assault and how they should behave afterward.
In the past few years, high-profile trials and low conviction rates for sexual assaults have spurred conversations about these myths and the role they play in the courtroom. The data that underpins The Globe's series sheds new light on this conversation. It shows how these myths likely operate in police services across the country in a way previously shielded from public scrutiny. That is the power of data – it can shine a spotlight on an aspect of a problem that has previously been overlooked.
Systemic discrimination in policing remains a significant human-rights issue in Canada and one that the Ontario Human Rights Commission has been tackling for well over a decade. Beyond the issues of unfounded sexual-assault cases, this includes failing to properly investigate thousands of cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. It includes the overpolicing of black, Middle Eastern and indigenous men based on stereotypes. And it includes excessive use of force on people with mental-health disabilities. The end result is that some groups of people are overrepresented in our criminal justice system while some criminals are free to walk our streets.
Many police services, including the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police, have now committed to review their handling of sexual-assault allegations. In London, Ont., the London Police Service, which has one of the highest unfounded rates among Canadian cities, is auditing hundreds of cases and the chief apologized to victims who felt unsupported. These are all positive signs, but we need to do more.
Addressing systemic discrimination is hard work, and it will take more than one internal audit to address the human-rights concerns revealed in The Globe's series. First, police must acknowledge systemic discrimination in policing. They should consider retaining third-party experts to perform an audit of their operations and collect data to identify the many circumstances where systemic discrimination occurs. They must enact policies and procedures to eliminate discretionary decisions that are often the breeding ground for discrimination. They must make sure that all officers and leaders receive rigorous training on systemic discrimination and human rights, ideally incorporating expert knowledge and the lived experiences of the groups most affected. They must ensure that their service reflects the community it serves, including promoting women and people of colour to leadership positions. Finally, independent monitoring and accountability must become accepted and standard practice. This includes continuously collecting and analyzing data to measure systemic bias in policing, and disciplining officers who engage in discriminatory practices.
The OHRC has made enforcing human rights in the criminal-justice system one of its key priorities for the next three to five years. We are also committed to promoting a human-rights culture through education – to address and eliminate, at the source, the kinds of stereotypes that may be behind some of these statistics.
This is about our humanity and the true meaning of equal justice for all. Sexual-assault survivors must be taken seriously. Minority communities must be able to go about their daily lives in peace. Indigenous people must have their lives valued. People with mental-health disabilities must be provided with police assistance when they are in crisis. As a society, we can do nothing less.