On January 20th, a crowd of six to eight thousand gathered on Parliament Hill to participate in Ottawa's Women's March. Activists braved the cold to demand a better future for women around the world. Keeping their passion in mind, let's remember a vulnerable Canadian population that continues to be disenfranchised.
Canada’s Indigenous women and young girls are at a greater risk of violent victimization compared to the rest of the nation’s population. According to Statistics Canada, the 2014 General Social Survey indicated that the victimization rate of Indigenous women was triple the rate of victimization experienced by non-Indigenous females. Indigenous females only represent 4.3% of Canada’s population and yet they represent 11.3% of the total number of missing females and 16% of all female homicides. Unfortunately, many hypothesize that these figures underestimate the true number of victims. Canada’s minister for the status of women, Amnesty International, and research from the Native Women’s Association of Canada all estimate that the true number of victims is more likely to be well over 4,000 women.
In 2016, the federal government launched a National Inquiry in response to calls for action from Indigenous families, communities, and organizations. The Commissioner’s mandate stated that they intend to investigate “systemic causes of the violence including social, economic, and historical factors and to examine institutional policies and practices.” Unfortunately, issues of policing were not explicitly stated as a goal, causing many to believe that the national inquiry fails to place importance on a key component contributing to the crisis.
Canada’s justice system is supposed to protect all its citizens. Police officers should not be feared, and their actions should not result in an increased risk of victimization for the citizens they are meant to protect. It is concerning if a nation’s police force is inadequately serving its people. Ineffective policing of Indigenous communities has even caught the attention of Amnesty International. Among the Indigenous community, repeated failures to provide justice has tarnished the image of Canada’s courts. Indigenous women of Val d’Or, Quebec, have shared the following sentiments:
“We feel betrayed, humiliated, and our heart is broken in pieces. It is as if in this country’s justice system, we were not important, we were left behind and we have not been heard. And above all, that fear will continue to haunt us.”
“Enquête: SQ Abuse, Women Break the Silence” a CBC documentary provides a vivid glimpse of the crisis facing Indigenous women and girls. Since its release, 37 individuals have come forward with allegations against police officers of Sûreté Du Québec. 15 of the complaints alleged sexual violence. Women who were victimized years ago, are only now finding the courage to come forward with their own experiences in order to support more recent victims. Take 40 minutes to watch the documentary below that explores the disappearance of Cindy Ruperthouse and the mistreatment endured by Indigenous women at the hands of police officers in the town of Val d'Or, Quebec.
Isabelle Parent, a former employee of Quebec’s public security ministry who worked for 12 years inspecting police officers, criticized the handling of the police misconduct allegations.
“There was no interest. At the top, there was really no interest in the security of Indigenous women."
Sadly, none of the claims of abuses of power or sexual assault were met with any accountability. Quebec prosecutors decided against filing any criminal charges against the officers implicated in the investigation. In response to the lack of charges, Viviane Michel, president of Quebec's Native Women’s Association, had this to say:
“We feel anger. We feel injustice. The message we’re left with is that justice simply doesn’t apply to us”
Kristen Wawatie described the sexual abuse that she experienced the hand of a Val D’or officer in 2012.
"I said no, I don't want you to touch me," she said.
"It's then that his hands went, they went in my pants. He said to me that he can touch me when he wanted."
[When] Wawatie said she told the officer she would bring him to court.
"He said, 'Who are they going to believe, the police or a drunkard?"
Wawatie’s story shows that abusive police officers are well aware of the lack of consequences they are likely to experience even if victims find the courage to report their behaviour.
Without accountability, victims who have suffered similar abuses are also silenced. It creates a hostile environment where victims and the community no longer feel safe around those who are employed to protect them. Services Parajudiciaires Autochtones du Québec, which is a paralegal service that handles calls from the tip line worries that fear is preventing victims from submitting formal complaints. Jean Jolicoeur, vice-president of the paralegal service, believes that because complainants and police live in close proximity to each other they are less likely to make formal complaints.
Police officers hold a prominent position in society and their uniform provides them with a level of power. Those entrusted with the power of the law should uphold it to the best of their ability without exceptions. After all, "With great power comes great responsibility." They should be protecting all citizens equally without preference or bias. Unfortunately, under policing, racism, prevalent abuses of power without accountability, and a 'loyalty above all' police culture allows for situations where this is not the case. By identifying and correcting problems within police forces, we can hope to heal the divide between Indigenous communities and those tasked with protecting them.
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