This article contains disturbing details that may be upsetting to readers.
“Don’t worry about it, I’ve got your back”.
That was the response of Bob Paulson, the former commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in an email he addressed to the force’s 29,000 members in 2013 in the wake of a report detailing sexualized violence of Indigenous women and girls in British Columbia by RCMP officers. Paulson’s outright refusal to take urgent action to address horrifying reports of violent sex crimes carried out by members of the force is part of a trend that has only continued—even as evidence of widespread misogynistic discrimination, violence and harassment mounts.
In the summer of 2020, when thousands of Canadians took to the streets in protest over repeated shootings of Black and Indigenous peoples, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki and Alberta RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki initially denied systemic racism exists in the force. They claimed that racism was neither pervasive, nor was it found in every corner of the RCMP. Not here they said.
Today, class-action lawsuits against the RCMP are stacking up, with potential liabilities in the billions. The Janet Merlo and Linda Gillis Davidson settlement for discrimination, harassment, bullying and sexual assault against female members of the RCMP, paid out more than $125 million. A second class-action led by Cheryl Tiller for sexual harassment of women who worked with the RCMP as volunteers or contract employees settled for $100 million. The Supreme Court of Canada recently refused the federal government’s appeal of the certification of the Geoffrey Greenwood and Todd Gray $1.18 billion class-action lawsuit against the RCMP for widespread bullying and harassment.
The list of class-actions by women inside and outside the RCMP is also swelling. Margorie Hudson, an Indigenous woman in the force, filed a statement of claim for a class-action on behalf of racialized employees for racism and discrimination within the federal police. A class-action worth $600 million was filed for families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. The RCMP also faces a $600 million class-action for abuse of Indigenous peoples in northern Canada.
At this point, it would strain credulity for anyone to suggest that the RCMP only suffers from a “few bad apples.” Tens of thousands of women inside and outside the force have been victimized by the RCMP. Commissioner Lucki’s struggles to understand the definition of systemic racism points to the crux of the problem: denial.
Then there are the many reports, studies, inquiries, and commissions that have called out the RCMP, including the one issued yesterday by the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) entitled The Toxic Culture of the RCMP: Misogyny, Racism, and Violence Against Women in Canada’s National Police Force. This report, which I co-authored, includes analysis from legal experts, public officials, civil society organizations, journalists, front-line workers, and international inquiries. Its purpose is to synthesize information gathered over the last decade and help educate the public about the deeply entrenched problems within the RCMP—problems it has refused to fix. It is also meant to provide support for the many organizations that have made calls for an independent review of the RCMP.
The most recent report written by former Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache, Broken Dreams, Broken Lives, is particularly disturbing. Bastarache was appointed to oversee the claims process for the $125 million Merlo-Davidson class-action settlement involving more than three thousand women RCMP officers. He found that the sexual harassment and abuse of women RCMP officers would not be blamed on a “few bad apples.” To the contrary, he confirmed that sexual harassment and abuse is fostered and perpetuated by the toxic culture of the RCMP—one that is rampant with racism, misogyny, and homophobia. The resulting sexualized violence surprised his team of assessors:
The level of violence and sexual assault that was reported was shocking. Indeed, over 130 claimants disclosed penetrative sexual assaults.
These women suffered a range of harms including physical and mental trauma, in some cases leading to post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, eating disorders and even suicide. Their trauma was exacerbated by consistent failures and refusals of the RCMP to address their reports.
Outside of the RCMP, in their role as service providers, a toxic culture of racism, misogyny and violence has shown itself time and again with the dismissive or abusive responses to women’s reports of domestic violence. This can be seen through high rates of “unfounding” of sexual assault reports by women; the documented failures to properly investigate the disappearances and murders of Indigenous women and girls; and the evidence of overt acts of violence against Indigenous women and girls.
These acts include sexual harassment, stalking, verbal abuse, unnecessary strip searching, physical assaults and brutality, excessive use of force, lethal shootings, and sexualized violence—including rapes (not to mention the RCMP’s direct connection to Canada’s violent colonization of Indigenous lands). Even within the RCMP, Bastarache’s report notes male members targeted Indigenous women for sexual exploitation and violence. It is no wonder these women had a “palpable” fear of the police, given the many reports of violent rapes by RCMP officers documented by Human Rights Watch.
The situation is made even worse by the long-standing, well-known failures of the RCMP to protect women from violence by officers or by society at large. The lack of an effective accountability and oversight mechanism was one of the concerns raised by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes, and consequences. Even the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, which accepts and investigates complaints against the RCMP, is not a fully independent mechanism, nor does it have any real power to ensure the RCMP implement their recommendations. All the power rests with the national police force, where abuse of power, together with racism and sexualized violence, has been normalized.
Not only are many of the actions by RCMP members criminal in nature, but they also violate women’s basic rights to equality and non-discrimination. Women are simply not safe around the RCMP—whether they work there or not. With the high level to which Indigenous women and girls are over-policed by the RCMP, it is hard to avoid them. The federal government’s ongoing failures to protect women from state-based violence committed by RCMP officers and their failures to properly investigate, prosecute and remedy this violence, represents grave violations of human rights under domestic and international law. All of this is happening in plain sight.
This is why the UN Special Rapporteur, Human Rights Watch, Indigenous women and community groups have long called for an independent review of the RCMP—one that has a fulsome terms of reference; broad powers to subpoena evidence; and includes Indigenous women, feminist experts and others as active investigators. It is important to undertake a hard look at the RCMP, a core institution of Canada, to figure out in what substantive ways it can be fixed, if at all. Women inside the RCMP deserve a safe workplace, free from violence. Canada cannot even begin the process of reconciliation until it addresses the ongoing genocide which includes the sexualized violence of Indigenous women and girls by the RCMP.
The question remains: will the federal government act urgently to ensure not another woman in Canada is violently raped or assaulted by the RCMP? That remains to be seen.
Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She is a longtime CD columnist, and has been a practicing lawyer for 20 years. Currently, Pam is a Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Toronto Metropolitan University.
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