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Report submitted to Ottawa highlights police abuse against Indigenous women

A woman burns sage during a rally for missing and murdered indigenous women on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 4, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Degrading strip searches and groping by male officers. Slamming a woman's head on the sidewalk during an arrest. Unwillingness to report crimes due to fears of police harassment. Threats. Intimidation. Racial discrimination. Fears of retaliation.

These are just some of the accounts in a Human Rights Watch submission to the federal government to be released Monday that focuses on police treatment of Indigenous women in Saskatchewan. The organization documented 64 alleged cases, since 2014, of police abuse against aboriginal women in the province.

Its findings, based on interviews with more than 60 Indigenous women, suggest problems of policing in Indigenous communities aren't just confined to cases in northern B.C., about which Human Rights Watch released a 2013 report detailing RCMP threats and assaults, or Val-d'Or, Que., where women have filed complaints against police of sexual violence and intimidation.

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Read more: Sexual abuse: When calling the police isn't an option

Read more: Val-d'Or abuse allegations a sign of justice system in crisis

"What was surprising … was just how the same subset of problems with policing, and the same types of policing abuses, are happening across the board – that we're seeing the same patterns," said Farida Deif, Canada director for Human Rights Watch, in an interview, adding that this points to "much larger systemic issues of institutional racism and discrimination, and certain stereotypes of Indigenous women as having 'high risk lifestyles.'"

When police are abusive, she added, "it's not just that it has consequences on that individual women – but it has consequences on an entire community of people."

The abuse documented includes excessive use of force, police neglect when women reported domestic violence and fear of retaliation if women filed a complaint against a police officer.

The submission is based on six weeks in the field last year. Researchers interviewed 64 Indigenous women, whose identities were withheld due to privacy and safety concerns. They also spoke with social-service providers, such as women's shelter staff, and police authorities in the province.

The accounts "raise serious concerns" about the safety of aboriginal women in the province, HRW said. It urged the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to examine how policing failures and mistrust of law enforcement endanger women.

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Among provinces, Saskatchewan has one of the highest rates of aboriginal female homicides in the country. Saskatchewan and Manitoba had rates of violence against women that were about double the national rate, a 2013 Statistics Canada study showed.

The report notes that today's "fractured" relationship between law enforcement and Indigenous communities is rooted in history. Colonialism and racist assimilation policies – especially the residential-school system – "still overshadow the present-day dynamics between police and Indigenous communities," it said.

An example of shortcomings is in domestic violence cases. Women told HRW that calls seeking help were "frequently met with skepticism and victim-blaming, and that police would often arrest victims of abuse for actions taken in self-defense."

In a domestic-violence case, to avoid dual charges against both the victim and perpetrator of abuse, police should determine which party is the main aggressor, so that charges are laid against that individual. But when HRW asked police in the province whether they had a specific policy on dual arrests in domestic-violence cases, none of the police services could identify such a policy.

Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte is the Saskatoon-based co-chair of Women Walking Together, an organization that raises awareness about missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Her cousin is among the murdered, a victim of a serial killer. Family members made dozens of reports to police that she had gone missing; the response from law enforcement, back in 1992, was indifference.

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She says progress has been made since then. But more still needs to be done to stop racial profiling and to "respect those in the margins."

"There's a lot of reluctance to talk to police, when women are needing police support … in reporting domestic violence or violence in general," said Ms. Okemaysim-Sicotte, who is Cree and was an adviser on the HRW submission.

The report made more than a dozen recommendations, among them, more trauma-informed training for police that educates them on how to de-escalate situations, ensuring there are enough female officers to conduct searches; and more accountability and oversight of police.

"I think the key issue is there hasn't been much progress on accountability," Ms. Deif said. "When you don't have progress on accountability, there's no deterrent for future police abuse."

Video: Missing women inquiry not reaching out to families: Advocates (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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