Royal Canadian Mounted Police Accused of Raping, Brutalizing Indigenous Women and Girls on ‘Highway of Tears’
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in northern British Columbia have been accused by aboriginal women and girls of threatening, brutalizing, sexually assaulting and even raping them, as well as failing to protect them from violence, including a wave of murders, along a remote area which is traversed by a road known as the ‘Highway of Tears.’
The shocking allegations have been published in a Human Rights Watch report, “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada,” that was released on Wednesday. The 89-page report details both the RCMP’s failure to protect women and girls in northern British Columbia as well as cases of often horrific abuse allegedly committed by Mounties against indigenous females.
“The threat of domestic and random violence on one side, and mistreatment by RCMP officers on the other, leaves indigenous women in a constant state of insecurity,” said Meghan Rhoad, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Where can they turn for help when the police are known to be unresponsive and, in some cases, abusive?”
HRW conducted research and interviews along a 450-mile (724 km) stretch of Highway 16, called the ‘Highway of Tears’ by aboriginal women, as well as along Highway 97 in British Columbia. The ‘Highway of Tears’ is nationally infamous due to the dozens of women and girls who have disappeared or who have been found dead there since the 1960s. Some 50 women and girls, as well as many relatives of missing girls, indigenous leaders, community service providers and others were interviewed.
HRW researchers found that indigenous women and girls felt that the RCMP was not protecting them. Worse, many described suffering abuse and brutality at the hands of the officers who were supposed to be protecting them. The complaints included excessive use of force, strip searches by male officers and physical and sexual abuse.
One woman accused four RCMP officers of taking her to a remote location and gang-raping her before threatening to kill her if she told anyone.
“I feel so dirty,” the woman told HRW. “They threatened that if I told anybody they would take me out to the mountains and kill me, and make it look like an accident.” She says it wasn’t the first time she’d been raped by officers.
One woman who spat at officers while being arrested said she was given a terrible choice.
“‘Here’s your choice, you either get charged with assaulting an officer or you take the beating,’” one of the officers allegedly told her. “Stupid me I said, ‘I’ll take the beating,'” the woman said she replied. “She grabbed me, slammed me up on the wall and I hit my head. Then she slammed me on the ground. A male cop drove his knee into my back while she stripped earrings out of my ears and elastics out of my hair.”
Some women and girls who dare contact police seeking help have reportedly been blamed for their own abuse, berated for substance abuse issues or even threatened with arrest for defending themselves against domestic abusers.
“I had a woman about two years ago who decided to report [a sexual assault] to the RCMP – very rare,” one community service provider told HRW. “I have worked with many women sexually assaulted and only a handful go forward with charges. She was made to feel that she was to blame….You have a system of authority that puts the blame on the victim.”
One woman, who have her name as “Lena G.,” told HRW that her 15-year-old daughter’s arm was broken by an RCMP officer responding to a domestic violence call regarding the girl’s abusive boyfriend.
“It’s the worst thing I ever did,” “Lena G.” told HRW. “I wish I didn’t call.”
A climate of fear of reprisals was found to be prevalent among the indigenous women and girls interviews by HRW. This fear was comparable with what HRW researchers experienced in post-war Iraq and Libya. Furthermore, women and girls often feel that they have little recourse after they’ve been victimized. “They can lodge a complaint against the police with the Commission for Public Complaints,” the report states. “But the process is time consuming and the investigation of the complaint is likely to fall to the RCMP itself or to another police force.”
Understandably, many women and girls fail to report crimes committed against them.
“The lack of a reliable, independent mechanism to investigate allegations of police misconduct is unfair to everyone involved,” Rhoad said. “It is unfair to the officers who serve honorably. It is unfair to the northern communities that deserve to have confidence in their police forces. And it is especially unfair to the indigenous women and girls, whose safety is at stake.”
The legislature of British Columbia has recently established the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) to provide independent civilian “criminal investigations regarding police-related incidents involving death or serious harm.” But according to HRW, the government’s definition of “serious harm” excludes most cases of police rape and other types of sexual assault.
Stephen Harper, Canada’s Conservative prime minister, responded to the release of the HRW report by urging the group to “just get on and do it”– give detailed information to the police so that they can investigate the allegations in the report. But this comment ignores the very real fear of police reprisals felt by many indigenous women and girls.
“Human Rights Watch stands by the victims who asked us not to provide identifying information about their claims of police mistreatment because they are terrified of police retaliation,” Rhoad said.
As the report points out, the United Nations has weighed in on the issue, criticizing the Canadian government for failing to adequately address the epidemic of violence against aboriginal women and girls. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women announced in December 2011 that it would investigate cases of missing and murdered indigenous females and called on the government to “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 failure of law enforcement authorities to deal effectively with the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada is just one element of the dysfunctional relationship between the Canadian police and indigenous communities,” the report concluded.
HRW offered the following recommendations:
- The Canadian government should develop and put into operation a national action plan in cooperation with indigenous communities to address the violence against indigenous women and girls, with attention to the current and historical discrimination and the economic and social inequalities that increase their vulnerability to violence, as well as the need for accountability for government bodies charged with preventing and responding to violence;
- The British Columbia provincial government should expand the mandate of the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) to include authority to investigate allegations of sexual assault by police;
- The RCMP, in cooperation with indigenous communities, should expand training and monitoring of training for police officers to counter racism and sexism in the treatment of indigenous women and girls in custody and to improve police response to violence against women and girls in indigenous communities; and
- The RCMP should eliminate searches and monitoring of women and girls by male police officers in all but extraordinary circumstances and require documentation and review of any such searches by supervisors and commanders. It should prohibit cross-gender strip-searches under all circumstances.
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