Police culture, lack of trust with Indigenous communities need fixing, chief tells inquiry

The head of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary says the force must build far better relationships with Indigenous people.

Four days of hearings in St. John's start with testimony from police

RNC Chief Joe Boland says he's working to improve police culture. (CBC)

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Joe Boland told the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on Monday that his force has struggled to build trust with Indigenous communities. 

It was a common theme on the first day of a series of hearings in St. John's on human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Inquiry commissioners heard from four witnesses who work in law enforcement and justice.

"Lack of confidence in police is a particularly significant issue for Indigenous persons who for decades have struggled with a police culture that lacks sensitivity and awareness," Boland said.

"Not only do we care, but we're going to do something about it."  

From left, commission counsel Meredith Porter, Juanita Dobson, lawyer Julian Roy and Insp. Tina Chalk. (Bailey White/CBC)

Boland says information about human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Newfoundland and Labrador is spotty precisely because of a lack of trust.

The information that does exist suggests the issue disproportionately affects Indigenous women and girls.

Boland detailed his force's partnership with the RCMP on Operation Northern Spotlight, in which female officers work with local outreach groups to approach sex workers about leaving the industry.

He said there's a waiting list to access a non-profit program which gives women the tools to leave the sex industry.

"And I know that the Indigenous population is over-represented in that group," he added.

The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is holding four days of hearings this week in St. John's. (Bailey White/CBC)

Boland also went into detail about the department's failings when it came to building trust.

He recalled seeing a news article about an Indigenous woman in St. John's who reported a sexual assault to the RNC but wasn't believed.

"She was mistreated, she wasn't believed. She was told, I guess, to leave," Boland said.

"You can't imagine how hurt I felt."

The chief described new training that began after that incident — but he says the department is still working to build relationships.

Under-reported crimes

The inquiry is scheduled to call 14 witnesses to speak about human trafficking this week at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown St. John's. Some of the witnesses have worked in the industry, others are academics.

RCMP assistant commissioner Joanne Crampton testified about some of the challenges in enforcing human trafficking laws.

Insp. Tina Chalk of the Ontario Provincial Police was the first to testify during MMWIG hearings in St. John's on Monday. (Tina Chalk/OPP)

"A lot of women who are in an exploitative situation do not realize that they're in an exploitative situation," she said.

The assistant commissioner testified that many women are trafficked by people they consider to be their partners. Their relationships start out positively, traffickers give gifts and build trust before changing gears.

"That trust is maintained, even once they start to be sexually exploited," she continued.

Crampton references RCMP statistics on human trafficking charges. Between 2005 and 2017, there were 455 human trafficking charges laid in Canada — but Crampton says the numbers don't reflect reality.

"We're very confident that those stats are not anywhere near what the real picture would be."

Trafficking in plain sight 

Ontario Provincial Police Inspector Tina Chalk testified that a lack of recognition is also a problem on law enforcement's side.

She described arrests she'd made earlier in career for things like assault and sexual assault, which may have fit the bill for human trafficking, as well.

Chalk says the OPP has developed training programs to help officers recognize trafficking.

"It's important for every officer to have that," she said, "They may well be seeing it in plain sight."

Chalk said Indigenous women and girls are particularly vulnerable because they often have to travel outside their home communities for school, work or health care.

There's also a stigma associated with human trafficking, and women from small communities might worry about their story getting out among neighbours and friends.

"We have to as a community remove that stigma," Chalk said.

The inquiry involves three parts. The first focuses on hearing from families and survivors, and the second on institutions. The St. John's hearing is part of its third effort, to gather testimony from experts and officials, including those from government, law, academia and the community.

Testimony continues Tuesday morning.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Bailey White

CBC News

Bailey White is a senior producer in St. John's.