Human Rights Watch wants special unit to look at alleged Sask. police violence against Indigenous women

Human Rights Watch is calling for the creation of a special investigative unit to look at allegations of violence by police in Saskatchewan.

Organization says it's documented dozens of claims of police misconduct based on 64 interviews

Farida Deif, Canada director at Human Rights Watch, speaks at a news conference Monday. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Human Rights Watch is calling for the creation of a special investigative unit to look at allegations of violence by police in Saskatchewan.

During detailed interviews last year with 64 Saskatchewan Indigenous women, the New York-based organization says it uncovered dozens of claims of police misconduct, including overly intrusive strip searches, excessive use of force, racial profiling and sexual harassment.

"The crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada means that police services across the country should be acutely aware of and sensitive to the well-being, vulnerability and needs of Indigenous women," said Farida Deif, Canada director at Human Rights Watch.

"Instead, in some cases, it is the police themselves who are making Indigenous women feel unsafe."

Human Rights Watch, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, the Elizabeth Fry Society and others held a news conference Monday to elaborate on the report.

At the conference, Deif said the group found evidence of a "deeply fractured" relationship between police and Indigenous communities.

Why is there still denial? You can't deny that this is going on in our police system.- Heather Bear, vice-chief

She said Indigenous women told them they wouldn't call police to report crimes for fear of harassment and violence. She said one woman told them "we become as invisible as we possibly can" in public places to avoid police attention. This breakdown of trust is particularly dangerous for victims of violence, she said, and could be life-threatening.

Sheelah McLean, an Idle No More community organizer, said at the news conference the report "is not talking about a few bigots on our police force" but rather systemic racism and the justice system's role in perpetuating it.

'Not invisible'

All parties at the news conference agreed action is needed, not more reports. Heather Bear, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations vice-chief, asked how many reports have to be done before the problems are addressed.

"Why is there still denial?" she said. "You can't deny that this is going on in our police system."

She said the country needs "strong laws that protect our women from our protectors."

"We are not invisible," she added.

The report calls for a new special investigative unit that should employ staff with expertise in responding to violence against women. The report also calls for the unit to have power "to require chiefs of police to comply with the recommendations."

Human Rights Watch spoke with 64 Saskatchewan Indigenous women about their experiences for the report. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

According to the report, many Indigenous women are afraid to report police misconduct. Many are even afraid of the repercussions of reporting police violence against other Indigenous women they've witnessed.

Police agree changes needed: report

The report says most police know major changes are necessary in some areas. For example, it states, Prince Albert police estimate they take into custody 3,000 people per year for public intoxication.

"Police themselves recognize the problem and acknowledge that more centres are required and more support needed for those suffering from alcohol dependency," says the report.

Other recommendations include:

  • Ensure the commissioners of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls investigate police agencies.
  • Expand non-incarceration options for individuals arrested for being intoxicated in public, including short- and long-term detox facilities and alcohol management programs.
  • Expand training for police officers to ensure that police forces have knowledge about Indigenous history, the legacy of colonial abuses — including policing abuses — and human rights policing standards.
  • End body ("frisk") searches of women and girls by male police officers in all but extraordinary circumstances.
  • Collect and make publicly available (as ethically appropriate) accurate and comprehensive race- and gender-disaggregated data that includes an ethnicity variable on violence against Indigenous women, as well as on use of force, police stops, and searches.

Police response

Acting chief Dean Rae of the Regina Police Service said they're disappointed Human Rights Watch seems to have ignored all the information the force provided about its training and policies. For example, Rae said female officers search female detainees, and even in emergency cases, a male officer would not strip search a female detainee alone.

Acting chief Dean Rae of the Regina Police Service says the force is aware of problems and has been working to fix them. (Trent Peppler/CBC)

He said the recommendations don't highlight any problems that Regina police don't already know about and work toward fixing.

In a statement, Prince Albert Police Service Chief Troy Cooper said "our community is different" from many that Human Rights Watch may have visited.

"Indigenous women here have strong representation through governance bodies like the FSIN, the Women's Commission of PAGC [Prince Albert Grand Council] and several Mé​tis groups. When Indigenous women here are victimized, they are not a minority statistic; they are our family members and our neighbours."

Cooper said that in response to this report, he is also considering the formation of an advisory committee composed of local Indigenous women leaders to review the report and provide local feedback and recommendations.

In a statement, the Saskatoon Police Service said it agrees with statements made in the report regarding the vulnerability of Indigenous women.

"We take the allegations by women outlined in the report very seriously and have asked Human Rights Watch to provide specifics so that we may investigate," it said.

The Saskatoon Police Service said it encourages anyone who may have a complaint about their interactions with police to make a complaint to the FSIN, to the Provincial Complaints Commission or to the Saskatoon police.

With files from Jason Warick and Bonnie Allen