02/13/2013 04:57 EST | Updated 04/14/2013 05:12 EDT

RCMP accused of rape in report on B.C. aboriginal women

The RCMP says it wants to get to the bottom of abuse allegations against its officers in British Columbia involving aboriginal women and girls, but says individuals making the claims must come forward to allow police to conduct a proper investigation.

Those comments followed the release Wednesday of a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch detailing the claims — which include police threats, torture and sexual assault. The report calls on the federal government to launch a national inquiry.

Two researchers — one from Canada and one from the U.S. — spent five weeks last summer in the province’s north, visiting 10 communities between Prince George to Prince Rupert and hearing accounts from aboriginal women of alleged mistreatment at the hands of police.

First Nations communities they visited are all linked to B.C.'s so-called "Highway of Tears," where 18 women have disappeared over the past several decades.

Meghan Rhoad, a U.S. researcher with Human Rights Watch, told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday she is hopeful the RCMP will take the recommendations seriously.

"We met with the RCMP yesterday, and I am encouraged by the level of seriousness in how they are reviewing this report," Rhoad said.

RCMP Chief Supt. Janice Armstrong said in a statement released Wednesday the force is taking the allegations "very seriously," but added it needs more help to investigate further.

"In a written response to a series of questions posed by Human Rights Watch in fall 2012, the RCMP emphasized the seriousness of allegations of police misconduct and that these allegations must be brought forward for proper investigation.

"We also explained that complaints could be made to the RCMP directly, to the Commission of Public Complaints against the RCMP or to other independent investigative bodies without fear of retaliation."

The researchers interviewed 50 aboriginal women and girls, plus family members and service providers in northern B.C. They heard stories of police pepper-spraying and using Tasers on young aboriginal girls, and of women being strip-searched by male officers.

“It was very moving to sit across from these women and girls and hear them tell their stories,” Rhoad told CBC News.

However, she told reporters that researchers found levels of fear among aboriginal women with negative stories about police "comparable to post-conflict situations, like post-war Iraq."

"We look to the police for protection, and our girls and women have not been able to trust them to protect them," said Sharon McIvor, who is with the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action and is a longtime advocate for aboriginal women.

"Not only are they not protecting them adequately, but they are perpetrating offences against them — criminal offences," she said.

"[The report] is not about painting all members of the RCMP as abusers," Rhoad said. "We know that the great majority of members serve honourably, devoting their lives to the protection of their communities.

"It is about the fact that those good officers deserve better than to see those tarnishing their reputation not be held accountable."

Woman claims life threatened

The report suggests some of the accounts of harm done to women and girls appear to be the result of poor policing tactics, over aggressive policing and insensitivity to victims.

Human Rights watch documented eight incidents of police physically assaulting or using "questionable" force against girls under 18.

The report also contains troubling and graphic allegations of physical and sexual abuse, including from a woman, identified as homeless, who describes how police took her outside of town and raped her.

Rhoad said the woman told her the officers then, "threatened that if I told anybody they would take me out to the mountains and kill me and make it look like an accident."

'Deeply fractured relationship'

Human Rights Watch said none of the complainants are named in the report because they feared retribution. The alleged perpetrators also are not named.

"What's important to know is that often the first response from the police to aboriginal girls is to treat them as criminals, whether they're calling for help, or whether they're just approached on the streets by police," said Annabel Webb, founder of the Vancouver group Justice for Girls.

Despite the RCMP's repeated requests, the group did not release the allegations to the Mounties until this week, CBC News has learned.

The disturbing report does bear some important disclaimers.

"Human Rights Watch does not contend that this information proves a pattern of routine systemic abuse," it says. "But when such incidents take place in the context of an already deeply fractured relationship with the police, they have a particularly harmful, negative impact."

The report also notes that, "the testimonies that Human Rights Watch gathered do not establish the prevalence of abuse."

Stories 'heart-wrenching, appalling'

The international human rights organization's report calls on the federal government to launch a national inquiry into the claims of abuse, and with the help of First Nations leaders, implement a national action plan to address violence against aboriginal women and girls.

Human Rights Watch recommends the province hold a public inquiry, which could be part of a national commission of inquiry or a standalone inquiry.

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Jody Wilson-Rayboud, AFN regional chief for B.C., are calling on both levels of government to implement the recommendations, with cooperation from indigenous communities.

“The stories shared in this report are heart-wrenching and absolutely appalling, particularly given this is only a small sample of the conditions and experiences of indigenous women, girls and families across our territories,” Atleo said in a statement.