New report slams RCMP treatment of homeless Indigenous women in Northwest Territories

OTTAWA — Homeless Indigenous women in the North do not feel well-protected by the RCMP and instead face violence and discrimination by police, a new report from the Yellowknife Women’s Society has found.

The organization held two sessions with women last October, and every single participant said she either experienced abuse by an RCMP officer or knew an Indigenous person who had.

“More than once, women in our circles shared stories of being roughed up by the police and being explicitly told some version of, ‘I can do what I want to you — no one will believe you,’” the report says.

“Women also told us about calling for help and having the RCMP focus on ‘the wrong thing’ — asking women aggressive questions, spending time on administrative checkboxes despite urgency, or even arresting women who had sought their assistance.” 

In general, women who participated in the research said they felt their concerns weren’t taken as seriously or credibly as those of non-Indigenous people. 

“You know, they’re there when you don’t need them. And when you need them, they’re nowhere around,” one participant said.

Renee Sanderson, the executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, said these experiences along with a broad distrust of the RCMP have real-world consequences. 

“So many unhoused Indigenous women don’t ask for help from police, because they fear getting ignored, or roughed up, or worse,” she said.

“Who can they call on, if they feel unsafe with the people meant to protect them?”

The report makes 24 recommendations to improve those relationships and the safety of those the national force is mandated to protect. 

Sanderson, who previously worked for the RCMP, said in the report that the things she saw and interactions she bore witness to while employed with the force were “heart-wrenching.”

“I soon realized that you have two choices: you either become a part of this tight-knit group and look the other way when injustices happen, or speak out about it and be ostracized,” she wrote.

The report describes the RCMP as a force that is “left to police itself” due to current practices and a lack of resources for the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. 

“Nearly all individual cases of officer misconduct are referred back to the RCMP to investigate in-house.”

Between 2018 and 2023, there were 63 allegations of inappropriate use of force by the division that operates in Yellowknife, the report says.

All of them were found to be unsubstantiated. 

“The Indigenous women in our sharing circles were clear: despite the hundreds if not thousands of recommendations from all orders of government across the country, the relationship between unhoused Indigenous women in Yellowknife and the RCMP is not working.”

The force’s predecessor, the North West Mounted Police, became one of the earliest non-Indigenous arrivals in the region in 1873, mandated to impose “law and order” and assert Canadian sovereignty. It was amalgamated into the broader RCMP in 1920. 

Many still see police as executors of colonialism, the women’s society found. 

The finding echoes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which noted that for many Indigenous children, their first encounter with the justice system came when an RCMP officer took them to residential school.

Research participants said many RCMP officers in their communities demonstrate a lack of understanding of Indigenous Peoples, their cultures or their history with the force.

Indigenous Peoples account for around 90 per cent of the homeless population in the city, despite representing about a quarter of Yellowknife’s population. 

Of that group, more than 60 per cent had at least one parent attend a residential school, and more than one-third reported living in foster care or group homes during their youth.

Better social services would go a long way, the report says.

The society recommends increasing the number of shelter spaces and the capacity of mobile crisis response teams to help limit the interactions between police and homeless Indigenous women.

“Despite having one of the highest rates of substance use and addictions in Canada, there are no residential mental wellness and addictions treatment facilities in the Northwest Territories,” the report notes, recommending that one be established.

The report also calls for the RCMP to undertake better training, more ambitions community integration and a comprehensive review of policing in the territory in order to identify local policing needs and address the under-protection and over-policing of Indigenous women and other vulnerable groups.

“This is not the first report calling for the RCMP to change,” the report notes.

“The failure of the government of Canada and the national RCMP leadership to enact these recommendations are a driver of the broken relationship between the RCMP and unhoused Indigenous women.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2024.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press