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Justice system re-victimizes indigenous women

Another week. Another investigation into allegations that a sexual assault victim has been treated like a criminal. No doubt this one too will result in solemn mea culpas and a pledge to do better. I can t be the only one who is fed up with these empty promises. The latest case involves an indigenous woman in Alberta who was both sexually and physically assaulted. In 2015, the woman (who cannot be identified) was held in Edmonton Remand for five days while she testified during the preliminary hearing. She was detained under Section 545(1)(b) of the Criminal Code, which applies to witnesses who refuse to answer questions. After returning to court following a weekend in custody, the victim begged to be released and the judge refused.

Now, Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley is forming a special committee to investigate the behaviour and has personally apologized to the woman s mother. Sadly, the woman herself will never hear that apology. She was killed seven months after the preliminary hearing in an unrelated shooting. Cue the indignity. Cue the tearing of shirts, the promises to make it right, the assertion from Ganley that she s never heard of such a thing happening, like this is somehow some sort of bloody one-off. It s not.

In 1990, Kitty Nowdlok-Reynolds was violently sexually assaulted while living in Iqaluit. She moved to Vancouver with her partner, but the police failed to get a statement from her prior to her move. The Crown prosecutor in Yellowknife issued a warrant for her arrest to compel her to testify in the trial in Iqaluit. She was arrested and put in handcuffs, dragged through the airports in Edmonton and Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto, in part because the security guard responsible for her travel had slept in and missed one of her flights north. She ended up riding in the same prison van to court as her assailant. He pleaded guilty, which meant there was no need for a trial. No reason for her to be shackled and dragged through airports on display as if she were the criminal. Nowdlok-Reynolds said it was if she had been raped twice. The RCMP Public Complaints Commission heard Nowdlok-Reynolds grievance and she was eventually compensated. Of course, there was some talk about cross-cultural police training, but the commission failed to see that Nowdlok-Reynolds s treatment by the Crown and the RCMP as racist or sexist. Hard to think how that was even possible.

Almost 30 years later, it seems nothing has changed. In both cases, the indigenous women were viewed as being capricious and untrustworthy. In both cases, steps were taken to ensure they would be forced to testify at trial. Incarcerating them in the same prison system as their attackers was seen as a justifiable response. In both cases, the Crown, the police and the prison officials were all culpable in failing to display any type of common sense. Surely someone in the maze of bureaucracy looked up from their desk and said, “What?”

Underlying this rhetoric is the belief that women cannot be trusted, particularly not in cases that involve sexual violence.

Women are subtly and not-so-subtly told they are liars when reporting sexual assaults. It begins with the first interview with police and it culminates if and when the case finally makes it to trial. But in both these cases there is an additional layer and that is that both women are indigenous. In the Alberta instance, the victim was Cree. Nowdlok-Reynolds is Inuk. Indigenous women in Canada are not only more likely victimized by sexual violence, they are also more likely to not be believed. In a submission to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Winnipeg in 1990, indigenous scholar Emma Larouque said:

“The portrayal of the squaw is one of the most degraded, most despised and most dehumanized anywhere in the world. The squaw is the female counterpart to the Indian male savage and as such she has no human face; she is lustful, immoral, unfeeling and dirty. Such grotesque dehumanization has rendered all Native women and girls vulnerable to gross physical, psychological and sexual violence… I believe that there is a direct relationship between these horrible racist/sexist stereotypes and violence against Native women and girls.”

The violence against indigenous women and girls should not be at the hands of the justice system. And it seems that far too often it is.

Shannon Sampert is the former perspectives and politics editor at the Winnipeg Free Press. She is the editor-in-chief of EvidenceNetwork.ca and an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Winnipeg.

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