Human Rights Watch Canada and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations are calling for Saskatchewan police to change their ways after the release of a report detailing alleged abuses by officers in the province.
The report details 64 cases of officers allegedly groping, strip-searching and physically assaulting Indigenous women as recently as 2016.
New York-based Human Rights Watch wrote the report after visiting Saskatchewan last year, interviewing alleged victims and community organizations to gather their information.
FSIN Vice-Chief Heather Bear said she was disturbed by the findings.
“Violence against Indigenous women is most appalling when inflicted by police, who have a duty to protect all people and perform this duty impartially,” she said.
The allegations include:
- A woman in Regina alleging she was forced to take off all her clothes by a male RCMP officer conducting a search in 2014, despite her requesting a female officer.
- A woman in Saskatoon who witnessed police stripping an intoxicated Indigenous woman and throwing her to the ground in an adjacent cell
- A Prince Albert woman who said she was grabbed by the ear and punched in the shoulder by an officer after refusing to leave her vehicle with her child inside
‘Culture of silence’
The report’s author, Human Rights Watch Canada director Farida Deif, said the abuse has led to a “breakdown of trust” that’s hurting Indigenous women.
“Policing abuse not only undermines Indigenous women’s safety, it breeds a culture of silence that can be life-threatening for victims of violence,” she said.
Deif said her organization spoke with women who had brought domestic abuse allegations to different police forces across the province, but were dismissed or targeted themselves for criminal charges.
She noted one case involved a woman who was sexually harrassed and prepositioned by an officer when she went to the station to report an assault by her spouse. Deif didn’t specify which police service was involved in the alleged incident.
The director added many women wouldn’t come forward to police for fear of similar mistreatment.
‘Why is there still denial?’
FSIN Vice-Chief Heather Bear said there have now been several reports on the issue, and the time for action had come.
“How much more do we have to have?” she asked. “Why is there still denial? You can’t deny that this is going on within our police systems.”
Bear added governments and police have an obligation to work with Indigenous communities to reconcile and begin protecting the province’s most vulnerable people.
Saskatoon and Regina’s police services responded to the report Monday afternoon, calling it “one-sided.” However, Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill said they would investigate any specific instances of police abuse.
Independent SIU, Same sex strip searches among recommendations
The report comes with 16 recommendations; nine for the federal and provincial governments and seven for RCMP and municipal police services.
Human Rights Watch asks the government to include police mistreatment as part of the national Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry, and to implement recommendations from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
Saskatchewan is being asked to set up a civilian-led, independent special investigations unit with the authority to investigate systems that lead to police abuse. The report notes Saskatchewan is one of five provinces without such a unit.
As for police, the report calls for the immediate end of body pat-downs and “frisks” by male officers on women and girls in “all but extraordinary circumstances.” It also recommends police services have a sufficient number of female officers on hand to conduct necessary searches.
Police are also being asked to ensure their protocols related to domestic violence avoid laying “double charges” where the abuser and victim are both arrested for criminal offences.