SASKATOON – Indigenous women in Saskatchewan have been subjected to violence, invasive strip searches and other mistreatment by police, says a report from a human rights watchdog that was quickly criticized by some police agencies.
The report from New-York-based Human Rights Watch said the group documented 64 cases of alleged violent abuse during a visit last year to the province that included talks with indigenous women and social workers.
“Human Rights Watch found evidence of a fractured relationship between law enforcement and indigenous communities,” the report states.
“The legacy of settler colonialism and racist assimilation policies — particularly the residential school system — still overshadow the present-day dynamics between police and indigenous communities.”
The treatment of indigenous people by police in Saskatchewan has been the subject of high-profile legal proceedings. The 1990 death of Neil Stonechild, who was found frozen to death in a field outside Saskatoon, led to an inquiry and the firing of two Saskatoon police officers.
In 2001, two other Saskatoon officers were fired after being convicted of unlawful confinement for leaving Darrell Night on the outskirts of the city the previous year in -22 C weather.
The report documents more recent allegations of police abuse from indigenous women whose names were not revealed, including:
— A Prince Albert woman who said an officer at a traffic stop in 2014 grabbed her ear and started hitting her because she didn’t want to leave her car with her child in it.
— A woman who said she was strip-searched by a male RCMP officer in Regina in 2014, and told to remove all her clothing despite asking for a female officer to conduct the search.
— A woman who said Saskatoon police stripped another, very intoxicated woman and threw her violently into an adjoining cell in 2015.
The report said victims of police abuse are reluctant to come forward or file complaints because they feel they will be ignored or even punished for speaking out.
“Indigenous women told Human Rights Watch that they would not call the police to report a crime committed against them — or crimes that they witness — out of fear that the police may harass them or be physically violent toward the suspect,” said Farida Dief, director of Human Rights Watch Canada.
The report makes 16 recommendations, including a call for an independent, civilian-led unit to investigate alleged police misconduct, instead of allowing police to investigate their own.
“Saskatchewan is … one of the five Canadian provinces that does not have an independent civilian special investigation unit,” it said.
The report also calls for more female officers to perform strip searches of women, and more training for police on indigenous history. There should also be more detox facilities to reduce the number of intoxicated people detained in jails or holding cells, the report said.
RCMP Assistant Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said the allegations of misconduct are very concerning and demand a full and thorough investigation.
But Zablocki said Mounties, who police much of rural Saskatchewan, work well with indigenous communities.
“This report indicates that the relationship between the police and indigenous communities is ‘deeply fractured,'” he said in a release. “In my time here as the commanding officer I can tell you this is not the case.”
The Regina Police Service said it provided details of its policies to Human Rights Watch, but the group ignored them in drawing up the report.
“The Regina Police Service does not dispute the lived-experience anecdotes of indigenous women, provided in the Human Rights Watch report,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Popowich said in a written statement.
“However, we do not accept that these stories can be generalized to represent the current environment and interactions between police services and all indigenous women and girls in this province.”
There were similar comments from the police services in Saskatoon and Prince Albert.
“Many members of our service are indigenous, so this issue is near to the organization,” Prince Albert Police chief Troy Cooper said.
“We also have a female resident elder and our structure includes resources dedicated to supporting indigenous women and families in our victim services unit.”
The Saskatoon Police Service said it agreed relations between police and the indigenous community have been strained, but are getting better.
“It is disappointing that none of those positive initiatives were included in the report.”
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said the issues raised by the report need serious attention.
“Some of the stories that are very well known now across Canada show that there have been serious issues with misconduct and sexism and racism and we need to eliminate it,” she said.
— By Steve Lambert in Winnipeg, with files from CJWW