Allegations police abused First Nations women in Val d’Or part of a national problem, observers say

It’s not just Val-d’Or.

Allegations Quebec police attacked and sexually assaulted First Nations women for years are part of a national problem, says a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

First Nations women from Val-d’Or, about 525 kilometres northwest of Montreal, claimed in a report by Radio Canada that Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officers forced them to commit sex acts, assaulted them and dropped them off outside of town, forcing them to walk back alone in a litany of alleged incidents stretching from 2001 to 2015.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard announced Tuesday the province will name an independent observer to oversee the investigation by Montreal police into the accusations.

READ MORE: Eight SQ officers suspended in wake of sexual-assault allegations

None of the allegations have been proven. Eight SQ officers are on leave; a ninth accused officer has died since the alleged incident occurred.

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But to Meghan Rhoad the allegations are nauseatingly familiar.

Rhoad, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, has documented allegations of excessive force and sexual assault by police in northern British Columbia. She says the situation in Val-d’Or is similar.

“There needs to be a real examination at the national level of the relationship between police forces and indigenous women and girls,” Rhoad told Global News Wednesday. “That examination would be a logical part of a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous girls.”

In 2013, Rhoad’s report Those Who Take Us Away detailed police failures to protect indigenous women from violence in northern B.C. as well as abuse by police officers themselves.

READ MORE: Anger at Stephen Harper, disenfranchisement fuelled turnout of aboriginal voters

An RCMP watchdog is investigating the report.

Human Rights Watch was surprised to get the call in 2012 from a Vancouver organization Justice For Girls, Rhoad said. Canada had a strong human rights record – why would an investigation be necessary?

She realized that assumption was naive.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 50 indigenous women and girls ranging in age from 15 to late 60s across 10 communities that included Prince George, Prince Rupert and Williams Lake.

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READ MORE: Indigenous group gives Quebec premier 24 hours to meet, discuss police abuse claims

The result was scathing: Allegations included a police dog’s unprovoked attack on a young girl; unwarranted strip-searches of women by male officers; and allegations of sexual assault in five of the communities the report’s authors visited.

In the early 2000s, the Saskatoon Police Service became infamous for its so-called “starlight tours” – the practice of arresting First Nations men and driving them out of the city in the dead of winter before abandoning them.

The story of Darrel Night, who survived one of the incidents, was widely reported in the media. Two officers involved were convicted of unlawful confinement in September 2001 and sentenced to eight months in jail.

Rhoad said she remains positive there will be systemic change in Canada.

“There are problems in every country.What matters is the government takes meaningful steps to address them.”

On Tuesday, Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, demanded a meeting with Couillard to discuss abuse against Native women.

Picard called on prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau to open a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal woman within 30 days of being sworn into office. Trudeau had previously said he’d do it within 100 days.

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*Editor’s Note: An earlier version stated that Human Rights Watch was asked to investigate police in northern B.C. by the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. They were first asked to investigate by a Vancouver organization Justice For Girls.

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