An international human rights group says Canada's inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls should also examine how police officers treat — and, in some cases, mistreat — women, as well as how police forces investigate MMIW cases.
Human Rights Watch has written to the federal government to recommend that the scope of the inquiry, which is currently in the planning stages, "include police misconduct."
"It was important for us, because we didn't want these issues to get lost, and we thought that that was a possibility, frankly — that the issue of police misconduct could get lost," said Meghan Rhoad, a women's rights researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"There's a lot of attention being given to how police handle investigations of murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls and that's appropriate … but the other side of this is police accountability for abuse that they themselves perpetrate."
Rhoad co-authored a 2013 report that detailed allegations from indigenous women and girls of excessive force and sexual assault by RCMP in northern British Columbia.
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The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, a civilian watchdog that oversees the national police force, is investigating the allegations contained in the report.
Meanwhile, the federal government is hosting a separate roundtable discussion in Winnipeg this week with the families of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls along with government leaders and aboriginal leaders.
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The roundtable is looking at policing as well as a number of other related issues, including poverty, housing in indigenous communities, child welfare and the impacts of residential schools.
"There's a broken relationship there between police and indigenous women and girls. I think that is a combination of the history … the role RCMP played in the residential school system. On top of that, you have the more recent abuses," Rhoad said.
"One piece of [the work to be done] is ensuring there is meaningful accountability when police commit acts of misconduct."
Some fear retaliation
Human Rights Watch is also urging the government to ensure that marginalized indigenous women and girls can take part in the inquiry, including those who are homeless, struggling with addictions, living with disabilities or who are incarcerated.
"The emphasis should be on how can we make it possible for indigenous women and girls to participate, especially those who are the most marginalized — women who are currently incarcerated but who clearly have something to share on their experience with the police or women who are homeless.… How do we make sure that they're included?" said Rhoad.
Women and girls should be able to participate without fear of retaliation by police members and others, she added.
Rhoad said she noticed an "alarmingly high level of fear of retaliation" among the women and girls she tried to interview for the 2013 report.
"In some cases … people who had initially said that they would speak with us ended up pulling out of interviews, rescheduling interviews, because they were afraid of retaliation for speaking about mistreatment they had experienced by the police," she said.
"We think it's important that the government keep in mind in designing the inquiry that they will need to ensure that people feel safe coming forward, that they will not be putting themselves at risk of retaliation and that … if allegations of retaliation come up, there's a plan in place to address that."
Women and girls who want to be part of the inquiry but who fear retaliation should be able to participate without having their identities publicly revealed, Rhoad said.