Explosive allegations of gang rape, widespread abuse and anti-Native racism have rocked Canada's national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which vowed on February 13 to investigate the claims by one of the world's leading rights groups.
According to a shocking report released on Wednesday by the respected U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW)—which interviewed 50 aboriginal women and girls in numerous communities for its research—police officers gang raped one woman, stripped, sexually abused or raped several detainees in custody, and created a “constant state of fear” in victims.
The report, “Those Who Take Us Away,” details accounts of alleged widespread abuse by the RCMP.
This report “was about the level of fear that I and my colleague witnessed in the north at levels that we found comparable in conflict situations in post-war Iraq,” Meghan Rhoad, HRW's lead researcher for the report, said. “It’s about the lack of meaningful accountability for police neglect or police mistreatment, which creates an environment of impunity for violence against ingenious woman and girls.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was forced to respond to the charges in the House of Commons by both opposition parties, the New Democrats and Liberals, a sign that the allegations have further tarnished Canada's national police force.
“The allegation we receive relative to the RCMP is apparently that the RCMP won’t investigate something,” Harper said in Parliament today. “That is why we’ve given the appropriate information to the RCMP complaints commission. If Human Rights Watch, the Liberal Party, or anyone else is aware of serious allegations involving criminal activity, they should give that information to appropriate police so they can investigate it.”
On HRW's website, the alleged police misconduct was the top story, alongside a report on a massacre in Yemen and severe political violence in Kenya. The research comes amid escalating demands for a national public inquiry into the more than 600 missing and murdered aboriginal women documented by the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC). Its research, however, stagnated after Harper scrapped funding for the Sister in Spirit project, the campaign that first brought national recognition to the issue of violence against Native women with carefully compiled statistics.
RCMP Chief Superintendent Janice Armstrong pledged to investigate the allegations—which have not been proven in court—but said that police cannot do so if the complainants remain anonymous. HRW replied that a “culture of fear” is widespread with police in northern communities, where many women fear retaliation or even further abuse if they step forward.
“In a written response to a series of questions posed by Human Rights Watch in fall 2012, the RCMP emphasized the seriousness of allegations of police misconduct and that these allegations must be brought forward for proper investigation,” Armstrong said in a statement. “It is impossible to deal with such public and serious complaints when we have no method to determine who the victims or the accused are.”
But the RCMP said it has no intention of launching a “large-scale inquiry” into the accusations, deferring the matter to the newly formed B.C. Independent Investigations Office, which responds to misconduct claims.
The 90-page report is the result of 87 interviews with 50 indigenous women and girls between 15 and 60 years old in at least 10 communities.
The reports findings include allegations that one woman, identified as “Gabriella P.,” was gang raped by four officers last year, who allegedly threatened her with death if she reported the assault.
“I feel so dirty,” the tearful 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.”
As well, two separate 12 year olds reported being tasered, pepper-sprayed, or attacked with police dogs. Another woman in Prince George alleged she was arrested and taken to a basement by RCMP officers, who she claimed stripped, drugged and sodomized her, then threatened to murder or “disappear” her family members.
“I just went home and cried,” the woman told HRW. “Why did this happen to me? Why didn’t they just leave me on the street?”
The rights group said it did not report the incidents with police because of the survivors' fears of retaliation.
“Human Rights Watch was struck by the level of fear on the part of women we met to talk about sexual abuse inflicted by police officers,” the report states. “The lack of faith that victims have in the safety and effectiveness of current complaint processes, coupled with the exclusion of rape and sexual assault from the mandate of the new B.C. Independent Investigations Office, leaves victims of egregious abuse without a place to turn.”
The organization described the treatment of aboriginal women, particularly in rural communities, as a “well-publicized stain on Canada’s human-rights record.”
“What this report does is adds to what’s already known,” Sharon McIvor, with the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, said in a statement. “We know that that police don’t respond when indigenous women and girls are missing or murdered in an appropriate way. What this does is it adds to the list of perpetrators. Every one of the stories in the report should not have happened.”
The disturbing allegations are not the first time the RCMP has faced criticism in B.C. In December, the province's Missing Women Commission of Inquiry found the force was guilty of “colossal failure” in its handling of the investigation of numerous reports of missing aboriginal women in the case of serial killer Robert Pickton.
The criticisms come after years of declining confidence in the police force, which has long been held up as a symbol of Canadian culture and stability but has been marred by scandal.
“Hopefully,” Rhoad said, “this will be a turning point in their response to both the accusations of neglect and the allegations of mistreatment. We’ll see in the coming days and weeks and months how exactly that apparent serious consideration of the report translates into action.”