Winnipeg police chief apologizes to Indigenous women as inquiry ends public testimony

"Indigenous women were were not treated with the respect and dignity they deserve," said Danny Smyth.

Police moving to 'victim-centred' service focusing on prosecuting human traffickers

'Indigenous women were not treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. As the chief of the Winnipeg Police Service, I offer my apologies,' said Danny Smyth. (CBC)

Winnipeg's police chief apologized Thursday for treating Indigenous women disrespectfully, as Canada's inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls heard from its final public witnesses. 

"The police in Winnipeg have not always been on the right path," Chief Danny Smyth said during testimony in St. John's about his staff's efforts to stamp out sexual exploitation.

Over several years, the force shifted to a "victim-centred" service, which focused on prosecuting traffickers and clients — not sex workers.

Chief commissioner Marion Buller says the inquiry is on track to deliver its report by the end of April. (CBC)

Smyth said Winnipeg has the highest per capita Indigenous population in a major Canadian city, and Indigenous people have received poor treatment over the years. 

"Indigenous women were not treated with the respect and dignity they deserve," Smyth said.

"As the chief of the Winnipeg Police Service, I offer my apologies."

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is concluding four days of testimony in St. John's that focused largely on sexual exploitation, human trafficking and what police services have done — but also not done — about complaints. 

Commissioners have been hearing from experts as well as people with first-hand experience in human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

"We've heard from families and survivors who've testified at our hearings earlier on in the process that they've gone back to school, that they've reported abusers to the police, that they've been able to follow up and get their children back," said chief commissioner Marion Buller.

"I think it's already a success."

Winnipeg's Rachel Willan testifies about growing up in the child protection system and being trafficked from a young age. (CBC)

The inquiry has been crisscrossing the country since early 2017 hearing from families of missing and murdered women, survivors of violence, police, academics and community outreach workers.

Despite the successes, Buller said the commissioners would still like to do more.

"Do we have enough time? No," she said.

"I don't think I would ever personally be satisfied, I always strive to do better and that's because I know families and survivors across Canada are relying on us to do our best."

Lived experience

Rachel Willan, an Indigenous woman from Winnipeg who was taken into protective custody when she was two years old and became a permanent ward when she was four, also testified Thursday. 

"At an early age I was subjected to a lot of sexual violence," said Willan, who was never adopted but instead grew up in a series of group homes, lockups and shelters.

Commissioners for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls will be hearing from more witnesses in the truth gathering process for its Knowledge Keeper, Expert and Institutional Hearing, happening Oct. 15-18. (CBC)

Willan said she was trafficked by a series of men and was arrested several times when she'd fight back against abusers and traffickers.

"I never even knew what normal was."

Sober since 2007, Willan now works with charity groups to help at-risk youth.

Next steps

Later this fall, the four commissioners will hear final submissions from parties with standing, which include the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit advocacy groups, and the provinces and territories.

After that, they'll begin to write their report.

"We have to file our final report by the end of April and so far, we will be on time and ready to hand that over to the government," Buller said.

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