In a historic move by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), an aboriginal female officer has been named head of the Saskatchewan division. Chief Superintendent Brenda Butterworth-Carr is the first native woman in Canadian history to lead an RCMP division. Chief-Supt. Butterworth-Carr is taking over command from Russ Mirasty, the first ever First Nations officer to lead an RCMP division, and will lend experience gained from national aboriginal policing in Ottawa. Women currently account for only 20 percent of Mounties, and while the RCMP was established in 1873 the first female RCMP commissioner was not appointed until 2006.
Butterworth-Carr’s appointment is an important step forward for the RCMP in improving relations with both women in the force and aboriginals. The RCMP’s relationship with indigenous women has been particularly fraught in recent years.
Aboriginal Women and the “Highway of Tears”
In February 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) discovered that RCMP officers in rural British Columbia have been systematically ignoring reports of aboriginal women disappearing on provincial Highway 16. The human rights watchdog discovered that nearly 600 aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or have been murdered in this area. Most of these incidents have occurred since 2000 and half of these cases remain unsolved. The RCMP’s mishandling of these cases has produced a “dysfunctional relationship” with local native women, who have understandably lost trust in the police force.
Such neglect is sadly nothing new for the aboriginal women of British Columbia, as it calls to mind the trial of serial killer Robert Pickton, who was convicted of murdering 6 sex workers who disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. An inquiry later revealed that the RCMP delayed investigating the disappearances of approximately 40 women in this case because of an institutional bias against both the profession and the ethnicity of the missing women, the majority of whom were aboriginal.
Abuse of Power and Impunity
The inquiry by Human Rights Watch into the more recent disappearances of aboriginal women alleged not only that there was a marked indifference on the part of the RCMP to the plight of these women, but also that many aboriginal women in rural British Columbia had been sexual assaulted and abused by their local RCMP officers. HRW noted that female aboriginal residents in 5 out of 10 of the towns visited, reported being sexually assaulted by an RCMP officer. Some of the details in the report are particularly harrowing including a 12-year-old girl reporting being attacked by a police dog.
The impunity with which these offending officers operated is disturbing. Nearly all the victims interviewed stated that they did not initially come forward because of their fear of reprisal, and many women scheduled to speak with HRW cancelled their interviews for the same reason. One native woman in particular, who alleges that she was raped by four RCMP officers, recalled that “[the Mounties] told me that if I told anybody they would take me out to the mountains and kill me and make it look like an accident.”
The RCMP appears to be suffering from a flagrant disregard for the basic rights of women. This tendency has been sadly prevalent in groups meant to ensure security. The alleged sexual assault of indigenous women by RCMP officers bears a certain similarity to the reports of American soldiers raping civilian women in Afghanistan. As one HRW researcher who commented, “you expect that level of fear when you’re in a place like Iraq, in a post-conflict country […] but in Canada, where police are known to protect citizens, it is quite alarming to hear the stories of women and girls, particularly.”
Cruelty Within the Force
There is evidence that a deeply sexist culture exists within the RCMP that is not unlike the “rape culture” in the United States military. Nearly 300 present and past female Mounties have signed a class-action lawsuit against the RCMP for harassment that they claim to have endured at the hands superiors and colleagues. The leading plaintiff in the suit is Janet Merlo, a former RCMP officer based in Nanaimo who experienced nearly constant sexual harassment and belittlement from her colleagues and superiors. She was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder, stemming from her work for the RCMP. Her anxiety was so severe that she was unable to leave her house or participate in her community. As a result, her psychiatrist advised her to move to a different town to benefit her mental health.
Responsibility and Reconciliation
In response to the mistreatment of aboriginal women in Canada, the federal government established a commission to investigate the disappearance and murders of these indigenous women. This commission will travel across the country conducting interviews with indigenous groups and gathering evidence to produce recommendations for Parliament. A civilian watchdog, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, will also conduct an investigation of police practices in these B.C. communities and the ways in which they may marginalize native women.
The cases of RCMP mistreatment of aboriginal women and of female officers have been most prevalent in British Columbia. As such, it is unclear what impact the promotion of Brenda Butterworth-Carr to the head of the Saskatchewan division may have. Hopefully her appointment will induce a ripple effect across all of Canada to improve the treatment of female officers within the RCMP. Leading by example, the Saskatchewan RCMP is sending a clear message that female officers are valuable leaders in the force.
Important steps are clearly being made to hold the RCMP accountable for allegations of neglect and abuse of women. However, these inquiries will only prove fruitful if they produce concrete policies that are implemented swiftly and effectively. Necessary policies include enhanced sensitivity training for all RCMP officers and independent authorities that women can go to when making complaints against RCMP officers. These measures would reduce the fear of retribution that keeps many victims of sexual harassment and assault from coming forward.
The promotion of a female aboriginal officer to head of the Saskatchewan division is an important step and signals an ideological change in the Mounties. It needs to herald a broader institutional adjustment across Canada in order for the RCMP to more adequately consider the rights of women as both civilians and officers.