Human Rights Watch, the New York-based organization with the self-explanatory name, has turned its gaze from chronic cases like Saudi Arabia and China long enough to expose abuses in a place Canadians might not have expected: Saskatchewan.
The abuses documented in a new report released Monday were allegedly committed against Indigenous women by RCMP officers and officers from the municipal forces of Regina, Prince Albert and Saskatoon.
The women, some of whom were complainants and not suspects, reported being strip searched, sexually and physically assaulted, and threatened by police.
One said an officer slammed her head into a sidewalk during an arrest in 2013, breaking her nose. Another reported that an officer twisted her arm so badly that she can no longer bend it to comb her hair. Yet another said she was mauled by a police dog.
A woman in Saskatchewan who was hauled in for public intoxication recalled seeing an older woman in the cell next to her stripped naked by officers and thrown onto the floor of her cell.
"She was crying for a while – she was hysterical. The cops refused to give her water – said 'we're shutting your water off.' Left her like that all night," the witness recalled.
Eight women told HRW that male officers conducted strip searches on them, an act the Supreme Court has said is a violation of the Charter of Rights.
One woman said she was arrested while wearing yoga pants and a tank top, and was alone with four male officers while being processed at the police station. One of the officers ordered her to take off her bra, even though she wasn't wearing one.
She described the scene that followed: "[They] repeated 'Take your bra off.' 'I do not have a bra on.' We kept arguing. I pulled my tank top straps down [to show no bra straps]. 'I am not wearing a bra.' He said, 'I want to check for myself.' He came down and said, 'put your arms out.' He felt me up and down my body – my complete body. Groped [my] breasts. It was completely inappropriate."
Women who were victims of domestic abuse said they were afraid to call police to report incidents because they had little faith that they would be taken seriously or treated fairly.
One woman told HRW that her mother had been assaulted by her partner and that she had asked police to check on her. The next thing she knew, two officers had handcuffed and arrested her mother for failing to cooperate with them.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 64 Indigenous women and social service providers for its report, and followed up by informing the police departments implicated by the allegations of abuse.
Police chiefs who responded said one of the problems they face is lack of addiction treatment centres needed to handle intoxicated suspects. In Prince Albert alone, police arrest more than 3,000 people a year for public intoxication.
There is no doubt that police are overburdened. In Saskatchewan, just as in too many places in Canada, police departments are the default public resource for dealing with chronic social ills. And that is not fair. It puts too big a burden on officers who are not properly trained for that kind of work.
But that does not excuse the sickening treatment of Indigenous women reported by Human Rights Watch. No police officer anywhere in Canada should be able to abuse a vulnerable woman, or anyone else, without sanction.
Instead, Canada is a place where little or nothing is done about the documented abuse of Indigenous women by police. The HRW report follows another it did in 2013 about police abuse of Indigenous women in British Columbia. It also comes on the heels of a Radio-Canada report that exposed years of physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous women by Quebec Provincial Police in the northern Quebec town of Val d'Or.
Neither of those reports has led to charges against officers or to any substantial policy changes, and one suspects the same outcome will occur in the wake of the HRW report on Saskatchewan.
The problem may be that too many people see allegations of police abuse as part of the "fractured" relationship between law enforcement and Indigenous communities, as HRW described it. They are reluctant to hold police accountable, perhaps in the belief that the issue is too complex to place the blame on one party.
If so, that is utter nonsense. Police abuse is police abuse. If Indigenous women in Saskatchewan or elsewhere have been abused by police officers, the officers involved must face sanction, just the way they would if the abuse occurred in Toronto and was committed against non-Indigenous women.
If the relationship between police and Indigenous people is ever going to improve, it will only come through trust. Right now, there is zero trust. The onus is on the police and their masters to fix it. Start with police accountability, and go from there.