A police psychologist has said that he’s not surprised by a shocking new report chronicling the RCMP’s failure to protect indigenous women and girls in northern B.C.
The 89-page document by Human Rights Watch stated that in five of 10 communities along Highway 97 and Highway 16—B.C.’s notorious “Highway of Tears”—investigators heard aboriginal women’s allegations of rape and sexual assault by officers. The New York–based organization also received 15 reports of RCMP mistreatment of women in cells and on the street, ranging from “routine rough handling during arrest to an outright beating in cells”.
Mike Webster told the Georgia Straight by phone that officers are responsible for their behaviour, but noted that they are also under a great deal of stress because of low staffing levels and a “toxic workplace”. He also claimed that uniformed officers work in a “culture of fear”, for which he holds management responsible.
“I’m not surprised that Human Rights Watch would find this kind of thing because I know the health of the members—and the members are not healthy because they are working for an unhealthy organization,” Webster said. “I just hope that the public doesn’t point their fingers directly at the young men and women who wear the uniform every day because their hearts are in the right place. They want to do the right thing. They want to serve the community. But sometimes, they are under such pressure they’re not at their best. And they make these mistakes.”
Former Mountie Rob Creasser—who speaks for those hoping to form a union within the RCMP—told the Straight by phone that there needs to be an investigation. But he also said that nobody who spoke to Human Rights Watch has filed a formal complaint of sexual abuse against officers, and so far, the public has only heard one side of the story.
“Now having said that, if any of these complaints are founded, it’s disturbing,” Creasser added. “But that’s a big ‘if’.”
Human Rights Watch, which prepared the report with the help of the B.C.–based human-rights group Justice for Girls, has called for a national commission of inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls across the country, including along the Highway of Tears.
“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,” Meghan Rhoad, women’s-rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a February 13 news release. “Where can they turn for help when the police are known to be unresponsive and, in some cases, abusive.”
The Human Rights Watch report was based on interviews with 50 women and girls and another 37 family members of missing or murdered women. Rhoad revealed that women who called police for help have, at times, been “blamed for the abuse, shamed over alcohol or substance use, and have found themselves at risk of arrest” when acting in self-defence. One mother reported that her 15-year-old daughter’s arm was broken by a police officer when he was called to deal with an argument she was having with an abusive boyfriend.
The Human Rights Watch report came out nearly two years after the B.C. Civil Liberties Association released a 104-page document called Small Town Justice: A Report on the RCMP in Northern and Rural British Columbia. After conducting public meetings in 14 communities, the BCCLA cited numerous shortcomings in the RCMP’s approach to aboriginal people, most notably in Terrace, where it stated: “Allegations of racism, excessive force, abuse of authority, reckless and negligent conduct and illegal searches were repeated many times.”
Small Town Justice raised concerns about male Mounties strip-searching female prisoners. This issue was also highlighted in the Human Rights Watch report, which recommended that the RCMP “prohibit cross-gender strip searches under any circumstances”.
“The RCMP continues to ignore credible reports from recognized human rights organizations about these communities at their peril,” BCCLA executive director Josh Paterson said in a February 13 news release. “From the force’s failure to stop the tragedy of missing girls and women along the highway of tears, to allegations of sexual assault by police, and Indigenous teenage girls being Tasered, punched and having arms broken in interactions with officers—the RCMP must take action to restore public confidence among these communities.”
In a statement issued to the media, the RCMP declared that it takes the Human Rights Watch report allegations “very seriously”.
“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,” the Mounties said. “We also explained that complaints could be made to the RCMP directly, to the Commission of Public Complaints against the RCMP or to other independent investigative bodies without fear of retaliation. Unfortunately, five months later and none of these allegations have been brought forward for investigation. 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.”
The human-rights group, however, claimed that women they spoke to are too frightened to file reports.
“Human Rights Watch researchers were struck when carrying out this research by the high levels of fear of police among the women interviewed, levels of fear that Human Rights Watch normally finds in communities in post-conflict or post-transition countries such as Iraq where security forces have played an integral role in state abuses and enforcement of authoritarian policies,” the report stated. “The palpable fear of the police was accompanied with a notable matter of fact manner when mentioning mistreatment by police, reflecting a normalized expectation that if one was an indigenous woman or girl police mistreatment is to be anticipated.”