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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Abuse of Aboriginal women: A story of complete lack of trust

| February 14, 2013
Abuse of Aboriginal women: A story of complete lack of trust

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A number of years ago, as part of a CBC inquiry into strained relations between the Montreal police and the black community, we interviewed a woman who had been abused by some cops.

While telling the story of her mistreatment, she related having calling out, at one point: "Call the police!"

Then, she said, "I realized these were the police!"

Police are public servants who carry guns. That puts them in a uniquely powerful position. There are, of course, a lot of good people among those  officials who carry guns.

But when they're not so good, there's trouble.

And the trouble gets even worse when an entire police force feels at odds with the community it is supposed to serve.

Police force or colonial occupier?

Based on this week's Human Rights Watch report, the police who are supposed to serve and protect northern British Columbia seem to be quite at odds with the communities they are mandated to protect.

To all appearances, RCMP officers in northern British Columbia act more like colonial occupiers -- or even feudal enforcers and thugs -- than servants of the public good.

Prime Minister Harper could barely conceal his contempt for non-partisan, evidence-based organizations such as Human Rights Watch in Parliament on Wednesday.

One might have expected the government to at least acknowledge that it was aware of the disturbing report from a respected international body; and to, at the minimum, say it was looking into the allegations.

Instead, the prime minister said: "If Human Rights Watch ... 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 ..."

That's it, that's all: a curt dismissal, without even a token expression of concern for the scores of Aboriginal victims of well-documented police abuse.

Specialists in evidence-based 'naming and shaming'

Human Rights Watch is an international body, based in New York, with offices in Europe, Africa and North America. It got its start in the wake of the Cold War era Helsinki Accords, and was focused, at first, on human rights in the Soviet Bloc.

It now has a worldwide scope, and has become a leader in using evidence-based techniques to document human rights violations, threats and abuses. Its goal, Human Rights Watch says, is to "name and shame abusive governments through media coverage and through direct exchanges with policymakers."

Human Rights Watch's latest news includes stories on the Ukraine, Cameroon, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and -- yes -- Canada.

The work the organization did in northern B.C. started when the Vancouver-based group "Justice for Girls" gave it a briefing on abuse of Aboriginal teen girls in the north.

Last summer, Human Rights Watch did five weeks of research in the area.

The researchers did 87 interviews -- with fifty Aboriginal women and girls, with about twenty helping professionals such as staff at shelters and youth outreach workers, and with seven current and former RCMP officers in region.

In its report, Human Rights Watch notes, during the course of its reasearch, a number of Aboriginal women withdrew their agreement of talk out of fear of retaliation. In fact, the report says that fear of retaliation was widely prevalent. As a result, the report is careful not to identify the people interviewed.

The victims may not be named, but the report does clearly describe the frightful nature of the abuse they suffered.

The report documents: "young girls pepper-sprayed and Tasered; a 12-year-old girl attacked by a police dog; a 17-year-old punched repeatedly by an officer who had been called to help her; women strip-searched by male officers; and women injured due to excessive force used during arrest."

And that is not all.

Human Rights Watch says it "heard disturbing allegations of rape and sexual assault by RCMP officers, including from a woman who described how in July 2012 police officers took her outside of town, raped her, and threatened to kill her if she told anyone."

Cannot expect justice through 'normal processes'

The Canadian government has referred all of this to the independent RCMP Complaints Commission.

Human Rights Watch, in its report, made a clear case as to why that course would be woefully inadequate.

"The process is time consuming," the report says, "and the investigation of the complaint will likely fall to the RCMP itself or an external police force. Fear of retaliation from police runs high in the north, and the apparent lack of genuine accountability for police abuse adds to long-standing tensions between the police and indigenous communities."

There is also a British Columbia Independent Investigations Office.

The RCMP in British Columbia, as in most other provinces, is "rented" to the province to act as a provincial police force. So, while RCMP officers are trained and employed by the federal government, those implicated in the Human Rights Watch report work within provincial jurisdiction.

However, as the report points out, the B.C. Office is virtually useless in dealing with the abuse Human Rights Watch uncovered in northern B.C.

"Most complaints will fall outside the Office's mandate," Human Rights Watch explains, "which is limited to incidents involving death or certain serious bodily injuries. The exclusion of rape and sexual abuse from this definition represents an unacceptable discriminatory omission on the part of the provincial legislature. It sends a loud message that assaults on women are not important."

Given the extreme nature of the abuse and the acute level of fear and distrust in the Aboriginal communities, Human Rights Watch recommends another, more muscular, course of action.

The Canadian government, the report says, should set up a "national commission of inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls before the end of 2013," which should also examine "incidents of serious police misconduct ..."

And the international organization further proposes the Canadian Government should also "establish independent civilian investigations of reported incidents of serious police misconduct, including incidents of rape and other sexual assault..."

So far, the government is not buying any of this advice.

It wants those who have damning information about police malfeasance to simply go through the normal, regular channels.

When you read the Human Rights Watch report it is obvious that those normal channels cannot do the job.

There simply is no way frightened and intimidated Aboriginal women will ever trust that official government-sanctioned complaints commissions will fairly investigate their cases.

Aboriginal women have no reason to believe that those bodies are entirely separate from and independent of the police forces they are supposed to investigate.

And who could blame them?

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