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Rights + Justice

Deep into a Human Rights Inquiry, BC Asks to Weigh In

As a tribunal considers victim services snafus and problems with RCMP sexual assault investigations, the province demands a say.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 9 Oct 2023The Tyee

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

B.C.’s attorney general has submitted an 11th-hour application to join a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal inquiry into the RCMP’s handling of historical abuse allegations at northern B.C. schools.

The application was filed with the tribunal on Sept. 19, nearly five months after hearings for the inquiry began in Burns Lake on May 1. While testimony was initially scheduled to conclude in June, additional dates have been scheduled throughout the fall to allow the tribunal to hear from more witnesses.

If approved, the attorney general’s party status would allow it to weigh in on a remedy sought by First Nations complainants that the BC RCMP divest itself of assault and sexual assault investigations in Indigenous communities.

The RCMP, which is represented at the hearings by Canada’s Department of Justice, has indicated that it intends to call a half-dozen witnesses in November to speak to the remedy, including someone from BC’s public safety ministry.

The inquiry, Woodgate et al. v. RCMP, is reviewing a high-profile RCMP investigation into a “well-known Canadian” accused of sexually, physically and emotionally abusing students in Burns Lake and Prince George in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The police investigation concluded a decade ago without recommending charges. But the complainants, six members of Lake Babine Nation, say it was flawed, with the RCMP’s “stereotypes and biased attitudes” standing in the way of a thorough investigation. They say they were denied access to police services based on ethnicity as investigating officers didn’t consider long-standing fear and mistrust of the RCMP in Indigenous communities. Some witnesses described being taken from their home by RCMP or federal authorities and forced to attend schools.

After an initial investigation, the Canadian Human Rights Commission referred the complaint to the tribunal for inquiry in 2020, agreeing that the RCMP investigation “did not meet the complainants’ needs as Indigenous victims.”

If the attorney general is successful in joining the proceedings, it would become the fourth party at the inquiry, alongside the complainants, the RCMP and the commission.

The attorney general’s application incorrectly lists the man accused in the initial police investigation as a party to the inquiry. Tribunal Chair Colleen Harrington clarified during a break in the hearings that the man was given “limited interested person status” exclusively for the purpose of requesting anonymity.

The man was granted the anonymity he sought and is referred to in tribunal documents as A.B.

The investigation into A.B. was launched in July 2012, after a member of Lake Babine Nation reported historical childhood sexual abuse to the Burns Lake RCMP detachment. She told officers that A.B. had touched her inappropriately on multiple occasions when she was 11 years old and a student at Immaculata Elementary School.

A.B. taught physical education at the school in the late 1960s, before moving on to Prince George College in 1970.

According to evidence presented at the hearings, the case’s lead investigator, Cpl. Quinton Mackie, stayed in regular contact with A.B.’s lawyer throughout the investigation. However, the accused never gave a statement, nor was he asked to take a polygraph, also known as a lie-detector test.

By comparison, when the woman making the allegation took her story to the Burns Lake RCMP, the officer who took her statement suggested nearly a dozen times that she take the polygraph. She told the tribunal she left the detachment feeling disbelieved and re-traumatized.

“It made me feel that as an Indigenous woman I was not respected,” she testified to the tribunal.

The rookie RCMP officer who took her statement blamed his lack of experience at the time and testified that more training about interviewing victims and witnesses of historical abuse would have been helpful.

The tribunal also heard that informal conversations between Mackie and a Burns Lake victim services worker — who told the officer she thought the woman might be fabricating the story for attention — made their way into the investigator’s final report.

Karen Bellehumeur, lawyer for the complainants, called the conversations “just pure gossip.”

Mackie testified that he did no further investigating before writing in his final report that it was not uncommon for the woman to “alter or embellish a situation if she feels like she is not receiving adequate attention.”

Mackie testified in June, after the woman’s tribunal testimony in May, and she was not given the chance to respond to the comments made by the victim services worker and relayed by Mackie. She testified that she hadn’t used the service, which is located in the Burns Lake RCMP detachment, because the worker told her she didn’t have time for her.

“I didn’t trust anybody there,” the woman testified.

Victim services programs in BC

Following Mackie’s testimony in June, The Tyee tried — and failed — to get clarification about what, if any, guiding principles or oversight exists for police-based victim services programs in B.C.

When reached by phone, the Burns Lake RCMP Victim Services program director declined to comment, abruptly ending the call.

The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, which funds the programs through contracts with local governments and not-for-profits, directed The Tyee’s questions to the RCMP.

The RCMP directed questions back to the Public Safety Ministry.

When pressed, the ministry confirmed it provides funding for 91 police-based victim services programs. The programs are meant to provide support, information and referrals to victims of violent crimes, it said.

They are often located in local RCMP or municipal police departments and “follow the operational policies and procedures established by the police detachment or department,” the ministry said, adding that the province does not provide direct oversight, management or delivery of the programs.

The attorney general’s recent application states that police refer people to victim services but “are not involved in its maintenance or delivery beyond the referral.”

The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls called on governments to ensure victim services are “independent from prosecution services and police services.”

New policing standards

In July, B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General announced new policing standards, created in collaboration with Indigenous organizations, intended to make sexual assault investigations more victim-centred, trauma-informed and culturally safe.

The province also said it would review closed cases to “improve training and future investigations.”

The announcement included “stable funding” for 68 new sexual assault services programs. Among the 56 contract recipients are First Nations and community service providers.

“Under the new policing standards, police officers will work in collaboration with victim-services workers to consider the survivor’s unique needs when they first report the sexual assault,” a statement from the province said.

During a media availability at the time, The Tyee asked Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth what oversight would come with the new policing standards, noting the ministry’s previous failure to provide best practices for victim services. The minister indicated that better collaboration between the ministry, police and support services would provide the solution.

The Tyee also asked the ministry if the announcement was a direct response to the ongoing human rights inquiry. A spokesperson declined to comment, saying only that the “allegations of historic misconduct in Burns Lake are disturbing and our government takes them very seriously.”

But the province appears eager to share its newly developed policing standards with the tribunal, noting in its application that it intends to speak to current efforts at police reform.

“The complainants seek remedies with respect to the creation of an independent investigatory body and that a special program be created to determine how this newly created independent investigatory body would undertake investigation of abuse of Indigenous individuals,” the application says.

“The [attorney general of B.C.] is in the best position to provide evidence regarding the province’s oversight of both policing and associated support services as well as current initiatives the province is engaged in, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous peoples, regarding police reform.”

The attorney general shared its intention to apply for party status with all parties in August, it added. While the RCMP consented, the complainants were opposed and the Canadian Human Rights Commission did not respond, it said.  [Tyee]

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