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Rights + Justice

BC Granted ‘Limited’ Status in Human Rights Inquiry

The province says it was only alerted by the RCMP to the ongoing hearings in July.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 20 Nov 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 been denied full party status in an ongoing Canadian Human Rights Tribunal inquiry into the RCMP’s handling of historical abuse allegations at northern B.C. schools.

Instead, the tribunal granted the province “limited interested person status,” saying this status would be enough to allow B.C. to provide relevant information on policing in the province as it pertains to changes requested by the complainants concerning the way abuse investigations are handled in Indigenous communities.

“The [B.C. attorney general] has asked to be involved in the proceedings for the specific purpose of providing the tribunal with relevant information relating to remedies sought by the complainants,” CHRT Chair Colleen Harrington wrote in the Nov. 15 decision. “This ruling facilitates that, albeit under a different rule.”

Harrington added that she was going ahead with the decision, rather than asking for additional submissions from the parties, in the interest of time.

Six members of the Lake Babine Nation initially filed their complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in January 2017. The commission investigated and referred it for inquiry in 2020.

After a series of delays, hearings got underway in Burns Lake on May 1, 2023. They continued online in June and were initially expected to last just six weeks. Additional dates were set throughout the fall to hear from more witnesses, including experts speaking to remedies sought by the complainants.

Three of six named complainants for the inquiry have died in the years leading up to the hearings.

The hearings are currently expected to wrap up next month.

One public interest remedy requested by the complainants asks that the RCMP divest itself of abuse investigations in Indigenous communities, replacing them with independent investigation teams that would include a language speaker, an Elder and a spiritual leader, among other members. The complainants have also adopted a recommendation from an expert witness at the inquiry that the team include one RCMP officer, Harrington’s Nov. 15 decision said.

Counsel for the attorney general wrote to the tribunal on July 26, the decision said, nearly three months after hearings began, saying the proceeding “had recently been brought to their attention” by lawyers with the federal Department of Justice, which is representing the RCMP at the hearings. B.C.’s attorney general then notified the CHRT that it would apply for party status “at the earliest possible opportunity.”

The attorney general filed its application for party status on Sept. 19, saying that policing is done through a series of agreements between the province and RCMP and that it had “a genuine and substantial interest” in the proceeding.

Harrington noted that it took the province almost two months to file its application after notifying the tribunal that it had been made aware of the hearings. She added that she was not aware of the attorney general attending any proceedings or requesting transcripts of testimony that has already taken place.

“In this case, given the late stage of the proceedings and the fact that it is a large government entity, the [B.C. attorney general] should have allocated resources to ensure its motion was filed in a timely manner,” she wrote.

The limited interested person status Harrington has granted restricts the attorney general’s participation to cross-examining witnesses and filing written submissions related to the public interest remedies sought by the First Nations complainants.

Full party status would have also allowed the province to file motions, request adjournments and call witnesses.

The status granted to B.C.’s attorney general is the same as that granted to the man at the centre of the RCMP’s decade-old investigation. While the man initially sought party status in an effort to have the inquiry thrown out, he was instead granted limited interested person status for the purpose of applying for anonymity.

He was granted that anonymity last year and is now referred to in tribunal documents as A.B.

A.B. taught at Immaculata Catholic school in Burns Lake in the late 1960s before moving on to Prince George College in 1970. He is accused by former students of physically and mentally abusing First Nations children at the school.

One former student, who is from the Lake Babine First Nation, accused him of sexually abusing her when she was 11 years old. She took her allegations to the Burns Lake police detachment on July 11, 2012.

Internal RCMP communications shared with the tribunal show that two days after the woman gave her statement, an RCMP briefing note describing A.B. as a “well-known Canadian” who had “risen to prominence [and] remained prominent” was circulated among RCMP brass, including then-commissioner Bob Paulson. According to one internal communication shared with the tribunal, this memo was also shared with A.B.’s legal team, which kept in close contact with the RCMP’s lead investigator throughout the investigation.

The tribunal heard that a secondary file was created to investigate broader abuse allegations at Immaculata school and that some witnesses alleging abuse by A.B. who attended Prince George College were shuffled to the alternate file and never interviewed.

The RCMP did not recommend charges against A.B., instead determining there was insufficient evidence to corroborate the woman’s story.

The complainants allege that RCMP discriminated against them and other Indigenous people in its investigation by not making accommodations for First Nations people’s distrust of the RCMP, which is rooted in part in the national police force’s role in forcing Indigenous children to attend residential schools.

In the recent decision, Harrington determined that granting the B.C. attorney general’s application would “seriously prejudice” the complainants by causing harm through additional legal costs and further delays.

She also noted the attorney general’s desire to participate was “reasonably foreseeable” when the complaint was first made.

“The complainants note that this application comes after an extensive amount of evidence has been heard by the Tribunal, but the [B.C. attorney general] does not even indicate if it has reviewed the transcripts of that evidence or if it has knowledge of the details of this matter,” Harrington wrote.

While recognizing that the province’s participation could assist in determining remedies “if there is a finding of discrimination against the RCMP,” Harrington added that it wasn’t necessary for the attorney general to be a party in order to provide input.

“The value that the [B.C. attorney general] may bring to the tribunal’s proceedings aligns much more closely with the factors the tribunal considers when determining whether someone should be made an interested person in the proceeding,” Harrington wrote.

“I accept that the [B.C. attorney general] has an interest in a potential finding of discrimination against the RCMP, which provides policing services in the province, and that the requested remedies may have an impact on provincial responsibilities relating to policing and victim services.”  [Tyee]

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