In the small community of Val-d’Or, Quebec, a shocking tale of sexual assault and abuse of power involving eight police officers is unfolding. An investigation by Radio-Canada’s Enquete program broadcast the stories of several women who said they’d been physically or sexually abused by police officers in the area.
The allegations are serious. They involve police officers picking up Aboriginal women, especially if they appeared intoxicated, and driving them out of town with the purpose of assaulting them. Some women said they were pushed into the snow and left out in the cold, forcing them to find their way back. Some were coerced to perform sexual acts.
The Quebec Provincial Police has been aware of the allegations since May, and promised to investigate. But until the Enquete program aired last week, the officers in question had not been restricted in their duties. Last week, some of them were put on leave and some were transferred to administrative roles, but no charges have been laid.
This is, indeed, the tip of the iceberg, and there is a strong undertone of systemic injustice that extends beyond this case alone. Here are some troubling statistics:
- Aboriginal women are 3.5 times more likely to be victims of violence compared to non-Aboriginal women
- According to one study that interviewed Aboriginal girls who had been trafficked, 87.5% had already been sexually abused, raped, or molested before they were trafficked, and 80% said they’d been forced to have sex with police
- A recent RCMP report put the total of missing and murdered Native women at 1,181
- Indigenous women make up 16% of homicide victims despite representing just 4.3% of Canada’s population
- Close to 67,000 or 13% of all Aboriginal women aged 15 and older living in the provinces stated that they had been violently victimized
One of the most horrific abuses of power is when a person who is supposed to serve and protect a community ends up being the perpetrator of violence. This is in fact the most dangerous type of abuse, because there is little recourse for victims. Even though most police officers would never dream of using their power to hurt and exploit women, those who do end up shattering trust for everyone else.
And this trust takes a long time to rebuild. The family of Sindy Ruperthouse, an Aboriginal woman who went missing from the Val-d’Or community 17 months ago, has said that the police did not take her disappearance seriously. Sindy was last seen in Val-d’Or on April 23, 2014, and her parents have since been on a desperate quest to find her. In light of the current allegations, the police are probably the last people they would trust to help them find their daughter.
That is why many are calling for a public inquiry into the case, which could be a piece of a nationwide inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls. This would:
- Seek to identify the factors causing these deaths and disappearances
- Identify instances in which indigenous women were treated differently by the authorities
- Provide legal clout to gain access to files, to “essentially force people to come forward if they are subpoenaed and testify, and discuss what happened in a number of these cases where it was obvious that [Aboriginal] women were being treated differently.”
As part of his election platform, Prime Minister designate Justin Trudeau has made a promise to do just that:
“We will immediately launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, to seek recommendations on concrete actions that governments, law enforcement, and others can take to solve these crimes and prevent future ones.”
The Val-d’Or case is a reminder that racism lies at the root of many acts of violence and exploitation, and a national public inquiry would be a way for us, as a country, to validate the stories of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.