OTTAWA — The human-rights watchdog that documented allegations of police abuse against aboriginal women in British Columbia is taking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to task for telling victims to just “get on” with reporting the abuse.
Samer Muscati, a Canadian researcher who was involved in compiling the report released Wednesday, said Harper missed the whole point — that aboriginal women and girls are often too traumatized to co-operate with police.
“Those comments ignore the fear of reprisal those victims have,” Muscati told The Canadian Press in an interview Thursday.
“The comments don’t address the core issue of the lack of security that prevents indigenous women and girls from filing complaints of police abuse.”
The report, from a New York group called Human Rights Watch, accuses RCMP officers of abusing aboriginal women and girls in northern B.C., and also includes an allegation of rape.
The alleged incidents were uncovered as part of a broader investigation into charges of systemic neglect of missing and murdered aboriginal women along B.C.’s Highway 16, nicknamed the “Highway of Tears.”
Harper said the government has asked the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP to look into the allegations, but he urged those connected with the report to simply come forward and tell police their story.
“If Human Rights Watch, the Liberal party or anyone else is aware of serious allegations involving criminal activity, they should give that information to the appropriate police so that they can investigate it,” he told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
“Just get on and do it.”
In an interview, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP is well-placed to conduct an impartial probe of the allegations.
“The CPC, for goodness sakes, is an independent, arm’s-length body that would investigate those things. So I find it very troubling that we’re unable to advance on that.”
Paulson said senior force members in British Columbia met with Human Rights Watch staff earlier this week and will do so again Friday.
“We tried to get them to understand that there is a public interest in having these handled by the justice system.”
Muscati said Human Rights Watch tried to brief Harper and three members of cabinet — Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose — in advance of the report’s release, but they were rebuffed.
Ambrose is also the minister of state for the status of women.
The RCMP commissioner took exception to the human rights organization likening the aboriginal women who came forward to people victimized by brutal Middle Eastern regimes.
“We disagree on their assessment that we’re Libya or Syria in terms of having people afraid (of) retribution,” Paulson said.
“I think the systems are clearly present to reassure people.
“There’s no evidence to conclude that a complainant would be at risk from making a complaint against a police officer.”
But Paulson stressed that investigators need basic facts to begin a probe.
“We should hear where and who and how. And then let’s go investigate. If it’s not us, another professional police agency or an independent office of investigation or the (complaints commission).”
Paulson said he wasn’t trying to cast doubt on claims heard by the human rights organization.
“I’m not skeptical. I am concerned that we are entering a new arena of anonymous, concealed criticism and demands for accountability.”
Muscati said the group has no intention of sharing the information it has about the abuse, as it has been urged to do.
“We have to stand by the victims who have asked us not to identify them because they’re terrified of police retaliation,” he said.
“It’s missing the point of the report. If he met with us and reviewed the report, he would know that’s an unrealistic request given that our report is about fear and insecurity that plagues aboriginal women and girls.”
The core recommendation of the report is that the federal and B.C. governments participate in a national commission of inquiry into the matter — a measure endorsed by the NDP, Liberals, the Green party and the Assembly of First Nations.
Human Rights Watch undertook the investigation last year after Justice for Girls, a Vancouver-based agency approached, it in 2011 complaining that authorities in Canada were not doing enough to address the problem.
Annabel Webb, the founder of the group, which works with poor, troubled teens, said Harper’s comments show he is “out of touch” with the suffering of aboriginal women and girls.
“Because to suggest the women and girls should go back to the very complaint mechanism that we’re saying is an utter failure is ridiculous,” Webb said.
“He’s not acknowledging the level of fear that the women and girls are facing, and he’s not listening to the criticism that we need independent oversight of the police.”
Human Rights Watch will continue to press the matter, said Muscati.
“It’s obviously an issue that we’re going to keep working on. It’s one that has caught the attention of the public,” he said.
“It’s not going to go away. It’s something that he’s going to have to address at some point.”
The Conservative government said Thursday it will support the idea of forming a special parliamentary committee to study missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.
Such a committee “could focus on practical solutions for the future, so that generations to come will no longer have to face the risks faced by those of the past and of today,” said Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay.
It would also explore the “broader underlying causes” of contributing issues in areas like family violence, economic security and prosperity, education, health, policing and urban living, she added.
A national public inquiry, however, is the only way to get justice for the women and their families, said NDP MP Niki Ashton, the party’s status of women critic.
“What the families of the victims that have lost a sister, a daughter, a grandmother have said is they want a national public inquiry,” Ashton said during question period.
“An independent investigation is needed to get to these answers.”
Josh Paterson, the head of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said he isn’t convinced a parliamentary committee is the best avenue to study the plight of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
“A parliamentary committee is not, by nature, independent from the political process. All of the parliamentary committees have got majorities from the governing party, and there are partisan people all around the table,” Paterson said.
“This isn’t something that should be left to political or partisan gamesmanship.”
He spoke by telephone from Vancouver, where he was participating in a march along with several other hundred protesters in honour of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Nor is Paterson confident in the RCMP commission’s ability to investigate the allegations contained in the report.
“We have found, and so many people have found over the years, that it is a very ineffective way of getting complaints dealt with,” he said.
“So we don’t take that particularly seriously.”