An investigation launched last year into policing in northern British Columbia is taking longer than expected, and investigators want people with pertinent information to come forward.
The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP (CPC), the civilian agency that oversees the national police force, initiated the investigation last May, following a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in February 2013 describing abusive treatment of First Nations women and girls by police officers.
The commission’s investigation includes thousands of files, spans hundreds of communities, and encompasses more than 40 RCMP detachments from Kamloops to the province’s northern border.
The commission is examining RCMP member conduct relating to policing of public intoxication; the incidence of cross-gender police searches; the handling of missing persons’ reports; the handling of domestic violence reports; use of force; and the handling of files involving youth.
HRW’s report was compiled through interviews in the summer of 2012 with 50 First Nations women and girls, and an additional 37 interviews with families of murdered and missing women, in communities along Highway 97 and Highway 16.
It describes numerous cases of alleged physical and sexual assault by RCMP officers, as well as mismanagement of investigations in cases of missing and murdered women.
“It’s a big, big file,” says Tim Cogan, director of communications and corporate services for the CPC. “We’re aiming to have it done by the end of the current calendar year, which would be December. In my estimation, that’s probably a fairly optimistic deadline.”
The commission is in the process of consulting with people interested in coming forward with information.
“We’re looking at engaging directly with the Aboriginal communities in the North District through a number of different facilitators we’ll bring in,” Cogan explains. “The idea [is] having people come forward and sharing with us some of the information they did with HRW.”
Cpl. Dave Tyreman, a North District RCMP media spokesperson, says the RCMP is fully co-operating with the investigation.
“Since we became aware of the HRW report and serious allegations involving the police, we sought and ultimately welcomed the opportunity for an independent investigation into the matter.”
Meghan Rhoad is a researcher with HRW, a New York-based human rights advocacy organization. She authored the report, titled, “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia.”
Rhoad appeared before the House of Commons Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women in January. In an editorial published in The Globe and Mail around that time, Rhoad calls for a national inquiry into violence against First Nations women.
“While the experiences of the 50 native women and girls we interviewed varied, for many of them the indignities they say were visited on them by the police had come to define their relationship with law enforcement. The ‘Highway of Tears’ in British Columbia – a section of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert – has come to symbolize rights abuses, disillusionment with the police, and sense of insecurity for native women and girls in Canada.”
Cogan, a retired RCMP officer from Ottawa, says if more people come forward, the investigation will be completed quicker and be more comprehensive.
“If people have an interest in this northern B.C. investigation – and I hope they do because clearly a lot of people spoke to HRW – if they have information they want to share with the commission, don’t wait for us to call you – call us.”
The HRW report is also critical of the police complaints process and questioned the accountability and effectiveness of the CPC.
Last summer, the federal government announced the creation of a new police watchdog – the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission of the RCMP (CRC) – to replace the existing CPC.
Enacted under Bill C-42, the CRC enhances “RCMP accountability and transparency,” according to the government.
The change is expected to come into effect this fall. Cogan says it will give the agency the authority to compel witnesses and do broader, systemic investigations.
“Bill C-42 also gives another $5 million to operate with, which is a pretty substantial change in our budget, because our appropriation up until last year was $5.4 million. That gives us a lot of ability to do more investigating on our own and to look at a much wider range of activities.”