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A new report by Human Rights Watch alleging widespread abuse by the RCMP against Indigenous women and girls was the subject of fierce debate Wednesday in Parliament. The 89-page report “described abusive treatment by police officers, including excessive use of force, and physical and sexual assault.”

“Those Who Take Us Away” details police failure to protect Indigenous women and girls in northern British Columbia in and around Highway 16 (known as the “Highway of Tears”), documents allegations of RCMP violence and abuse against Indigenous women, and calls on the government to convene a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

In Question Period Wednesday, the Conservative government ignored calls from the opposition to call a national inquiry. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said, “I would encourage anyone with information that bears on these matters to pass it along to the appropriate authorities.”

Human Rights Watch’s website provides a summary of the report’s findings: 

Human Rights Watch conducted research along Highway 97 and along the 724-kilometer stretch of Highway 16 that has become infamous for the dozens of women and girls who have been reported missing or were found dead in its vicinity since the late 1960s. In July and August 2012, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 50 indigenous women and girls, and conducted an additional 37 interviews with families of murdered and missing women, indigenous leaders, community service providers, and others across 10 communities.

Indigenous women and girls told Human Rights Watch that the RCMP has failed to protect them. They also described instances of abusive policing, including excessive use of force against girls, strip searches of women by male officers, and physical and sexual abuse. One woman said that in July, four police officers took her to a remote location, raped her, and threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

Women who call the police for help have been blamed for the abuse, shamed over alcohol or substance use, and have found themselves at risk of arrest for actions taken in self-defense, women and community service providers told Human Rights Watch.

Despite policies requiring active investigation of all reports of missing persons, some family members and service providers who made calls to police to report missing women or girls said the police failed to investigate the disappearances promptly.

Today is a national day of action for missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. 

In Parliament today, the Liberals are expected to bring forward a motion calling for a special parliamentary committee to investigate the missing and murdered women. 

Human Rights Watch noted that it was not the first international organization calling attention to the plight of Indigenous women and girls in Canada. 

United Nations human rights bodies have criticized Canada for the inadequate government response to violence against indigenous women and girls. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women announced in December 2011 that it was opening an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. In 2008, the committee called on the government “to examine the reasons for the failure to investigate the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and to take the necessary steps to remedy the deficiencies in the system.”

The government of Canada has taken some steps to address the murders and disappearances, Human Rights Watch said, but the persistence of the violence indicates a need for a national public commission of inquiry.

“The high rate of violence against indigenous women and girls has caused widespread alarm for many years,” Rhoad said. “The eyes of the world are on Canada to see how many more victims it takes before the government addresses this issue in a comprehensive and coordinated way.”

NDP MP Niki Ashton criticized the government’s response to this latest report as “callous.” 

“Families are hurting, communities are hurting and they want to see a commitment to action. That’s why we’re calling for an inquiry.”


Photo: Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch