OTTAWA - A new report by a respected international human rights watchdog has accused RCMP officers of abusing aboriginal women and girls in northern British Columbia.
New York-based Human Rights Watch uncovered one allegation of rape and others of assault by Mounties against aboriginals in rural B.C. communities.
The alleged incidents were uncovered as part of a broader investigation into charges of systemic neglect of missing and murdered aboriginal women along B.C.'s Highway 16, nicknamed the "Highway of Tears."
Other reports and studies have documented the broader problem, but the new report details specific allegations of abuse by RCMP officers.
None of the allegations has been proven in court. The RCMP did not immediately reply to a request for comment Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch undertook the investigation last year after a Vancouver-based agency approached it in 2011 complaining that authorities in Canada were not doing enough to address the problem.
"After years of hearing stories and doing our best to try and get some accountability, we felt we owed it to the girls to take the next steps, to try and get some kind of investigation and bring these allegations and abuses to light," said Annabel Webb, the founder of the Vancouver group Justice for Girls, which works with poor, troubled teens.
Human Rights Watch is calling on the federal and B.C. governments to participate in a national commission of inquiry into the matter.
"At the end of the day, what we want to see is accountability. Accountability for police mistreatment of aboriginal women and girls," said Meghan Rhoad, the report's lead researcher.
"Policing is failing in terms of protection of indigenous women and girls in northern B.C., certainly based on our research."
Researchers spent five weeks in 10 northern B.C. towns last summer and conducted 87 interviews with 42 indigenous women and eight indigenous girls from age 15 to 60.
The most serious allegation involved a woman who told researchers that she was raped and threatened with death by four RCMP officers after she was abused in a remote location.
Other allegations include: young girls being pepper sprayed and shocked with a Taser; a 12-year-old girl being attacked by a police dog; a 17-year-old girl being repeatedly punched by an officer; women strip-searched by male officers; and women injured by excessive force during their arrests.
"In 5 of the 10 towns Human Rights Watch visited in the north, we heard allegations of rape or sexual assault by police officers," the report states.
"Human Rights Watch was struck by the level of fear on the part of women we met to talk about sexual abuse inflicted by police officers."
Rhoad said about a dozen young women cancelled interviews with researchers because they were too scared of repercussions from police officers working in their small communities.
Samer Muscati, a Canadian co-researcher, said the level of fear among the women interviewed was on par with what he's encountered while researching abuses by security forces throughout the Middle East, Iraq, Libya and Sudan.
"You expect that level of fear when you're in a place like Iraq, in a post-conflict country where security forces are implicated in horrible abuses," said Muscati.
"But in Canada, where police are known to protect citizens, it is quite alarming to hear the stories of women and girls, particularly."
The report contains a number of testimonials from women whose identities have all been protected.
The most serious is from a homeless woman identified as Gabriella P., who described being raped by four Mounties. She told researchers she knew the names of the officers, but refused to provide them.
"I feel so dirty," a tearful Gabriella is quoted as saying in the report. "They threatened that if I told anybody they would take me out to the mountains and kill me and make it look like an accident."
Webb said it has been difficult to bring the allegations to light because the girls themselves don't believe in the justice system.
Webb said she hopes that upstanding members of the RCMP are outraged enough by the report to drive out their more abusive colleagues.
"First and foremost, I'd like to see a stop to the abuse," she said. "If we could just stop the abuse, that would be kind of a banner day."
On Tuesday, Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae urged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to call a royal commission or parliamentary inquiry in the broader issue.
"We know that along the highway that has unfortunately now been called the Highway of Tears, there are hundreds of women who have gone missing," said Rae.
A stern-faced Harper responded by defending the Conservative record on confronting the issue of violence against women.
"This is a very strong concern for this government. That is why we have invested additional resources in police enforcement, in investigation and prevention, and we continue to look to ways that we can act," Harper said.
"The murder and abduction of women in this country is completely unacceptable. We will continue to move forward with a vigorous criminal justice agenda to address these problems."