Human Rights Watch lawyer seeks RCMP accountability
A U.S. human-rights researcher who blew the whistle on the RCMP isn’t keen to become the centre of the story.
In a recent interview at the Georgia Straight offices, lawyer Meghan Rhoad emphasizes that her explosive 89-page report on the treatment of aboriginal women and girls in northern B.C. does not belong to her or her employer, New York–based Human Rights Watch.
“It’s a report that belongs to the indigenous women and girls that spoke to us,” Rhoad says. “I think what comes through in their voices in the report is that things are not right in the north.”
The investigation came after a B.C.–based group, Justice for Girls, submitted a brief to Human Rights Watch, which is known for its work around the world. “We met with them,” Rhoad recalls, “and they made a very compelling case.”
Last summer, Rhoad travelled 6,000 kilometres, criss-crossing northern B.C. and visiting 10 communities over a five-week period. Accompanied by Human Rights Watch lawyer and photographer Samer Muscati, Rhoad went as far south as Williams Lake on Highway 97 and spent a great deal of time in communities along Highway 16—known as the Highway of Tears—which connects Prince Rupert and Prince George.
During this time, Rhoad says she interviewed 50 women and girls and 37 family members of women who went missing or were murdered. She heard from some who claimed to have been raped by RCMP officers, others who alleged physical abuse combined with racist language, and still others who said that their complaints to police weren’t taken seriously. Some maintained that food was thrown at them while they were in detention.
One homeless woman told Rhoad that after she was taken out of town and raped by police in July 2012, she was ordered to remain quiet or she would be killed. “That’s the kind of thing that sticks with you,” Rhoad says.
In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week that anyone with information about these matters should bring it to police. Rhoad tells the Straight his suggestion that her organization provide details “just seems so out of touch”.
“We want accountability for what happened to these women,” she says, “but it’s not our place to tell women what judgements they should make about their security. If they’re in a small town in northern B.C., they know what their experience has been with the police.”
When asked what troubled her most during her investigation, Rhoad replies: “It’s this insecurity that came across in interviews when you sit across from women and girls who’ve had something terrible happen to them. Maybe it involved the police, but maybe it involved their boyfriend or a family member. When they called the police, they didn’t get the response. What had happened to them was minimized.”
After the report was released in Ottawa on February 13, Rhoad travelled to Victoria to visit the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. It is a civilian-led body with a mandate to investigate incidents involving on-duty or off-duty police that end in death or serious harm.
She says she understands why the office’s director, Richard Rosenthal, wants to ensure that its investigations are done well to inspire public confidence. However, Rhoad adds that she’s disappointed that his authority doesn’t extend to investigating allegations of rape and sexual assault by police.
“It does go back to the provincial legislature and it does go back to [Justice] Minister [Shirley] Bond to expand the mandate,” she says.
Rhoad wouldn’t reveal the cost of preparing the Human Rights Watch report, which recommends a national commission of inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada. “We did this to do more than raise awareness,” she says. “We did this to push forward real change on these issues.”