Male police officers are strip searching, groping and roughing up Indigenous women in Saskatchewan, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Monday.
The organization says it has documented 64 allegations of violent abuse toward Indigenous women at the hands of municipal police and RCMP officers. The RCMP says it will “take time to thoroughly review” the report, adding that allegations of police misconduct “are serious and demand a full investigation.”
The cases were identified during six weeks of field research between January and July 2016, but the incidents themselves stretch back many years.
When Indigenous women report violence to police, they told Human Rights Watch, they are often met with skepticism. The organization found that inadequate police accountability mechanisms are exacerbating a deep distrust in police, the report found.
As a result of its findings, Human Rights Watch is calling on the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women to investigate police abuse. It also calls on municipal police and the RCMP in Saskatchewan to end strip search of women by male officers, except in extraordinary circumstances.
Another woman said a police officer in Regina twisted her arm so severely that she now can’t use it to hook her bra or comb her hair.
The RCMP says it updated its rules around strip searches in August 2016 so that a supervisor must approve strip searches, and that they can only be done by “an officer of the same sex and in private” except in circumstances where an immediate search is required. Officers must also keep detailed notes of what happened during the strip search.
A previous report from the human rights group documented similar allegations of police abuse in northern British Columbia. According to Monday’s report, Saskatchewan can be added to the list.
“Degrading and abusive” strip searches of Indigenous women by male officers were documented across every jurisdiction in Saskatchewan, the group found.
Women described being “felt up” and having their genitals touched by male officers, even after they requested a female officer perform the search. These searches reportedly happened during arrests, detentions, routine traffic stops, and when women were attempting to report incidents.
Indigenous women also say they’re subjected to physical assault by police officers across Saskatchewan.
One woman reported police slammed her head into the sidewalk during an arrest, breaking her nose and giving her two black eyes. Another woman said she had to get stitches after a police dog attacked her. And yet another woman said a police officer in Regina twisted her arm so severely that she now can’t use it to hook her bra or comb her hair.
“When they threw her in the cell you could hear the thud.”
Another woman described being stopped in her car by a male police officer who refused to tell her why she was being stopped. He asked for her license and registration, and asked her to accompany him to his car. When she refused, saying she didn’t want to leave her baby in the car, he grabbed her ear through the window and began hitting her shoulder.
Another woman said she witnessed police abuse of an Indigenous woman in her late 40s who was put in a neighbouring cell in Saskatoon. The witness could see the reflection of what happened inside the cell. When they brought her in, her clothes were torn and bloody. Police strip searched the woman, who was drunk and had been pepper sprayed, she said.
“When they threw her in the cell you could hear the thud,” the woman told Human Rights Watch. “You only get a three-inch pad to sleep on. She was crying for a while — she was hysterical. The cops refused to give her water — said ‘we’re shutting your water off.’ Left her like that all night.”
— HRW Canada (@HRWcanada) June 19, 2017
“Overall, Indigenous women reported a deep mistrust of the RCMP and municipal police, and fear that they would face retaliation if they filed any form of complaint against an officer,” the report states.
Reports of abuse against Saskatchewan police are not new. Police in the province have been documented giving so-called “starlight tours,” in which Indigenous people were driven far away from their communities and left to walk home in freezing temperatures. After an Indigenous man survived one of these incidents in 2000, Indigenous leaders reported more than 250 calls of similar “starlight tours.”
In a statement on Monday the Saskatoon Police Service acknowledged the vulnerability of Indigenous women and said it had asked Human Rights Watch for specifics so it can investigate. The police service said strip searches are “very rare” and it has “one of the highest ratios of female police officers in Canada,” meaning they are available to conduct these searches rather than male officers. The agency said it was “disappointing” that HRW didn’t include positive steps the police service had taken in its report, like its Race Against Racism.
The new report comes amid heightened police scrutiny from Indigenous communities in northern Ontario and Quebec.
In Thunder Bay, local police recently refused to allow the RCMP to take over investigations into the deaths of three young people who were found in what locals are now calling the “river of tears.” First Nations leaders had called on the RCMP to take over, saying local police are unable or unwilling to further investigate the deaths, which they said aren’t suspicious. Thunder Bay police are under review for accusations of systemic racism.
In Val-d’Or, Quebec, an inquiry into police abuse and the relationship between Indigenous people and government will begin this summer. In 2015, Radio Canada uncovered 37 cases of police abuse toward Indigenous women across Quebec, including cases in which women were brought into the woods and forced to have sex with officers, or left to walk home long distances.
Cover: Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press