Yukon women's groups slam RCMP decision to halt sexual assault review process

Yukon women's groups are criticizing the RCMP's decision to shut down a committee reviewing sexual assault cases.

Yukon Status of Women Council head says move is an attempt by RCMP brass to 'shirk transparency'

The RCMP headquarters building in Ottawa. A coalition of women's groups in Yukon says they're unhappy the RCMP shut down a process to review sexual assault cases in the territory. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Yukon women's groups are criticizing the RCMP's decision to shut down a committee reviewing sexual assault cases.

The Yukon Advocate Case Review was set up in 2018 to examine sexual assault cases police labelled unfounded or where no one was charged.

But a coalition of advocacy groups said Wednesday that the RCMP's national headquarters ordered Yukon RCMP to shut the project down, citing privacy concerns.

"We're seeing the RCMP national headquarters leaning really far into shielding themselves from transparency by leaning into that privacy end of things," said Aja Mason, the executive director of the Yukon Status of Women Council. "They're invoking the Privacy Act as a way to shirk transparency."

Mason said the privacy concerns are unfounded because the Yukon review process is based on the Canadian Framework for a Collaborative Response to Sexual Violence. The federal privacy commissioner, Daniel Therrien, has said that framework does not violate the federal Privacy Act.

Mason also said members of the Yukon review process signed non-disclosure agreements that allowed them to speak about issues raised by the review, without violating the privacy of victims.

Neither Yukon RCMP's M Division nor the RCMP's national headquarters responded to requests for comment.

Advocates 'shocked' by decision

Women's groups and the Yukon RCMP worked together on the project, which Mason said was the first of its kind in Canada. Together they'd reviewed around 80 cases before the RCMP pulled the plug.

"I was like, 'Wow, what the hell?'" said Ann Maje Raider, executive director of the Liard Aboriginal Women's Council. "I was really shocked."

Maje Raider said the review was going well and that civilian members had developed a good working relationship with local RCMP who also participated.

"I just think it's such important work, to have an independent lens and another set of eyes on these cases in case something was missed," she said.

Aja Mason, executive director of the Yukon Status of Women Council, says advocates have lobbied the RCMP to reverse the decision, without success. (Aja Mason/Submitted)

Mason said she believes Yukon RCMP supported the review process.

"I just can't reiterate enough how cooperative and collaborative M Division have been.... They did not pull out because they wanted to. They pulled out because they were told to."

Since the review was halted in March 2020, Mason said Yukon women's groups have lobbied, without success, for the federal RCMP and cabinet ministers to reverse the decision.

The women's groups have filed an access to information request seeking a copy of a privacy assessment RCMP brass used to justify the decision to axe the Yukon review process. Mason said the request was filed in May 2020 and the groups have yet to receive a response.

RCMP's internal review 'has very little transparency'

Yukon's sexual assault rate is 3.5 times the national average and the rate of cases deemed unfounded is 25 per cent in the territory, compared with 19 per cent nationally.

Mason said numerous reports, including the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, call for increased public oversight of police handling of sexual assault cases.

The RCMP has its own process for reviewing sexual assault cases, the Sexual Assault Investigation Review Committees. But Mason said that process is too secretive.

"This is what we would call an internal process, a closed system that has very little transparency, if at all."