Canada’s national police force has turned to a group of experts and leaders — including Dalhousie professor Patti Doyle-Bedwell — for help in finding better ways to tackle violence against indigenous women across the country.
Prof. Doyle-Bedwell and 11 others known for advocating on these issues were invited to join an RCMP advisory committee, which gathered in Ottawa in late January for the first of three consultation sessions to be held there this year on the topic.
The RCMP has asked “Circle For Change” committee members for input on how it can enhance crime-prevention programs and identify policing gaps to help reduce and prevent the victimization of indigenous women, an issue that has gained national attention in recent years in light of RCMP statistics showing Aboriginal women are overrepresented among cases of missing and murdered women.
“We have to make sure that people take this seriously because there’s a lot of blaming the victim, saying ‘Well, if she hadn’t done this, hadn’t done that,’” explains Prof. Doyle-Bedwell. “They are kind of seen as isolated incidents. We want to make sure that we see the broader picture and how these things are connected.”
The RCMP-led Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women study, released in 2014 (updated in 2015), found there were 1,181 police-recorded incidents of indigenous female homicides and unresolved missing indigenous women cases in Canada, a number that far exceeded any previous public estimates. Others have suggested the number could be even higher given that the RCMP report was limited to police-documented homicide cases between 1980 and 2012 and did not include persons missing for fewer than 30 days or “suspected homicides or deaths deemed suspicious.”
More training, less fear
Prof. Doyle-Bedwell said the committee discussed a wide range of different issues at the January meeting, including the need for better training for officers on aboriginal issues and for improved data and documentation of cases involving victimized aboriginal women. The group also talked about the need to reduce fear of police within indigenous communities and — in light of comments made by the head of the RCMP in December — to confront racism within the RCMP itself.
“We were arguing that there is a sociological phenomenon happening here,” says Prof. Doyle-Bedwell, who led the NS Advisory Council on the Status of Women for 10 years and has worked with the Native Women Association of Canada and the United Nations in Geneva on aboriginal women’s rights. “Poverty, racism, sexism, losing kids to child welfare, inadequate housing, no running water: All of these issues create this perfect storm.”
A long-time educator and head of Dal’s Transition Year Program for 16 years, Prof. Doyle-Bedwell says she is particularly keen to help the RCMP improve its education and training on aboriginal issues. Currently, officers are only required to spend two to three hours on the subject, she says.
“I want the RCMP to have a greater understanding of our issues. They work in our communities. How can they not have that? I was surprised,” she says, noting that her primary goal is figuring out what learning outcomes the RCMP wants. “If you’re an RCMP officer, what do you need to know to work in an aboriginal community?”
Prof. Doyle-Bedwell says the committee explored the idea of having RCMP training centres for different regions aimed at teaching officers about the specific cultural norms and values of each tribal group, so that someone being posted in the north, for instance, knows how the culture there differs from a more urban environment such as east side Vancouver.
The committee also discussed the lack of aboriginal police officers in the RCMP (and affiliated local forces) and whether existing requirements to get into training – such as the need to have a clean criminal record – create barriers for candidates from those communities.
“We want to do more evidence-based research,” says Prof. Doyle-Bedwell. “That means basically saying, ‘How many aboriginal officers do we have? How many go into training? How many don’t make it? Where do they go? What can we do to make things better?”
In addition to making concrete suggestions for improving policing of and for Aboriginal communities, the committee will be reviewing the RCMP’s own report ahead of the next meeting in June. The group will also discuss what role the RCMP should play in a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has promised to launch sometime this year.
That inquiry and a host of other recent developments, including a ruling on the day of the committee’s January meeting from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s recognizing that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children on reserves, show these issues are finally gaining the attention Prof. Doyle-Bedwell and others have been calling for for years. “There is a huge wave of hope bringing these issues to the forefront,” she says.
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