CBC News has learned there are allegations that a Thunder Bay Police officer offered to turn a blind eye to criminal activity by a prostitute, in exchange for sex.
The allegation is part of a report on sex trafficking by the Ontario Native Women’s Association.
CBC News was given exclusive access to the results of the 2011 focus group with prostituted women in Thunder Bay.
ONWA executive director Betty Kennedy said she was hoping to meet with the Thunder Bay police chief to discuss the report before making it public. But she said the similarities to the Human Rights Watch report from British Columbia earlier this week, compelled her to speak out.
"There are significant parallels," Kennedy said. "A number of the individuals [in Thunder Bay] identified issues with respect to the police department and the fact that they’re coerced and beaten and are approached for sex by police officers so they won’t be charged, for example, with prostitution."
Seventeen women took part in the focus group. They were told their comments would be anonymous.
"The majority of participants identified that ‘there are police and probation officers that pick up girls’ for sexual acts," the report states. "One officer in particular has been identified by the majority of participants who had encounters with him….The participants stated that this particular officer has left the city due to numerous complaints."
‘Brutal’ relationship with police
Julie Tilbury, a spokesperson for Thunder Bay police said the service encourages ONWA to assist the people making the allegations to come forward "so they can be dealt with in a proper manner."
But a former child prostitute from Thunder Bay said a more complete overhaul police attitudes is required. Bridget Perrier now lives in Toronto and runs Sex Trade 101, an advocacy and outreach agency for prostituted women.
She said she has heard of police officers approaching prostitutes for sex, but she said she has never heard of an exchange resulting in charges being dropped for sex.
Still, she backs up many of the other claims in the report, calling the relationship between police in Thunder Bay and prostitutes "horrible, brutal."
"I experienced being manhandled," she said of her time as a 12-year-old child prostitute in Thunder Bay. "They took my clothes….and being in the cells in just a t-shirt and having the male police officers walk in and out, that was hard.
" I think it was a way to beat me down."
Looking for solutions
Perrier said the relationship between police and prostitutes in Thunder Bay hasn’t changed since she was a child.
"They need to come to terms with the fact that there’s something that isn’t connecting them to the community," Perrier said.
"I think it’s a pride thing and I think if they put down their big egos and humbly took in some cultural sensitivity training, they’d be better police officers," she added.
Tilbury says Thunder Bay police are looking at revising their diversity training program with input from the Aboriginal community.
But Kennedy says the solution goes beyond that.
"If we know for sure that women and Aboriginal people generally will not report to police because of fear, retaliation, whatever, why can’t they work through us?" she asked.
Kennedy said people do feel safe reporting to Aboriginal organizations, so police need to work with those organizations to facilitate their investigations.
"There’s a whole range of ways we can, collectively, overcome those issues."