When Juanita Desjarlais got a phone call from a high-ranking member of the Vancouver Police Department asking to meet, she wasn’t sure what to think.
He told her he was following up on her allegations against the Vancouver police from when she was living on the streets in the Downtown Eastside in the mid-1980s and ’90s — allegations she made when she testified at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
The allegations included being assaulted by members of the force and police not adequately investigating other assaults she experienced.
Desjarlais didn’t know that before the national inquiry wrapped in June, it had sent a referral letter to the Vancouver Police Department asking the force to “take further action” in regards to her testimony.
The foundation on which the inquiry was built prevented it from resolving specific cases or declaring people legally at fault, but it did have the option to refer matters to various authorities if it came across information “that the Commissioners have reasonable grounds to believe related to misconduct.”
The inquiry sent out about 125 referral letters across the country, according to former inquiry commissioner Michele Audette.
Now, Desjarlais and others are voicing concern about how these referrals are being handled, saying it’s confusing and unco-ordinated without any centralized oversight.
At the same time, law enforcement agencies that received the letters have been left to craft their own response plans based on the vague instruction to take “further action.”
Lawyer calls for process to slow down
Mark Gervin, a criminal defence lawyer who works at the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, is representing a client who was approached by the RCMP for follow-up after the inquiry wrapped. Gervin said he is concerned that as police agencies approach survivors and family members — even if it is with the best of intentions — they’re “scaring the daylights” out of many people.
He said in his view, the whole process of responding to the referrals should be slowed down so some form of centralized co-ordination can be set up.
“There needs to be more known about the process,” he said. “I don’t know anything about the process, and I’m involved in the process right now.”
Our clients have seen the worst of the system. Nothing good has come out of the system for them.– Mark Gervin, Indigenous Community Legal Clinic, Vancouver
Gervin said from what he’s seen to date, it appears police are coming to the table with good intentions, but it’s hard for people to trust a process that isn’t clear and transparent.
“Our clients have seen the worst of the system. Nothing good has come out of the system for them,” he said.
CBC has learned the inquiry sent 67 referral letters to RCMP headquarters and 13 to the Vancouver police. Both police services say not all of those letters should have been addressed to them.
The RCMP said in a statement that it has started taking action in response to the letters by reaching out to family members and survivors. It said it is “treating the concerns identified as if they were under the force’s public complaints process.”
Vancouver Police Deputy Chief Const. Laurence Rankin said the department is doing its best to respond to the referrals but said it would have been helpful to have some guidance from the inquiry or some centralized body about how best to proceed.
“I didn’t realize the confusion that other people were experiencing until you brought it to our attention,” said Rankin in an interview with CBC.
Desjarlais is still confused about the process, even after meeting with Insp. Dale Weidman from the Vancouver police in September.
Going into the meeting, she wasn’t sure what it was meant to accomplish. She hadn’t seen a copy of the referral letter and didn’t know the commission had sent anything to the police with her allegations.
Weidman said none of the people he’s been in touch with for follow-up to referrals knew about the letters. They “did not know that the inquiry was going to be doing this,” he said.
Desjarlais said she was triggered talking about her past and several acts of violence she survived — some that she alleged happened at the hands of police.
She wonders why the two met alone at her home, and why someone from victims services wasn’t made available to be with her, or an elder.
“There should have been someone who came along with him,” she said.
Allegations against Vancouver police
Desjarlais and Weidman knew each other when she was on the streets and he was a police officer in the Downtown Eastside.
It was during this period of her life that the inquiry detailed it had “reasonable grounds to believe there may have been misconduct resulting from assault and inadequate investigation by the Vancouver Police Department.”
The letter went on to detail allegations that surfaced in Desjarlais’ sworn testimony, including the time she said she reported suspicious activity to police in the period when convicted murderer Robert Pickton was killing women from the neighbourhood.
“She had reported seeing a man with facial hair driving a reddish Datsun in an alley. There was a woman in the car with her eyes open and a bluish tinge, who Juanita suspected was dead,” the letter states. “She recalls that police did not investigate when women started going missing and could have missed vital information since many of the missing women were last seen by people who made a living on the streets.”
Desjarlais also testified about two separate times when she herself was stabbed and said police didn’t investigate or arrest anyone. She said when she was 16, she was stabbed and hospitalized for six weeks.
“During that time, no police officers came to her for questioning or investigation. She reached out to Victim Services to press charges, but they did not want to help her because they said she was responsible for causing the situation due to her lifestyle,” the referral letter states.
Then the letter talks about a “near-death assault” on Desjarlais.
“Two police officers questioned Juanita for approximately 30 minutes at the hospital and she never heard from them again. At that time, Juanita was not sure that she was even well enough to address their questions. There was no prosecution or investigative follow-up,” the letter states.
‘That does nothing’
In addition to her testimony about inadequate investigations, Desjarlais testified about experiencing racism and discrimination from members of the Vancouver police. She said she was assaulted by officers “a number of times,” when she was a vulnerable youth living in the Downtown Eastside.
Do I doubt that that happened to her? Not at all.– Insp. Dale Weidman, Vancouver Police Department
On more than one occasion, she said she was detained by Vancouver police in a van, driven to the edge of the city, let out, pepper sprayed, then abandoned.
Weidman said he believes Desjarlais when she says these things happened to her, and he told her so when they met.
“But that does nothing,” she said. “If you really care and really want to do something, take some action, show some action.”
Weidman said he told Desjarlais he didn’t have answers for her on some of the points brought up in their meeting.
“Her feeling of being dissatisfied with that kind of answer, I totally understand that,” he said. “But that’s all I can say. There’s no way for me to find the answer for her. Do I doubt that that happened to her? Not at all.”
Vancouver Police Deputy Chief Const. Rankin said these meetings are just one step in the department’s response to the inquiry’s referral letters.
Individuals approached for follow-up can also go to the Office of the Police Complaint Commission for B.C., the oversight body for B.C. municipal police forces and their members, if they have concerns about how the force is handling referrals.
The police complaint commission said it has opened monitoring files on all 13 referral letters sent to Vancouver police and will be reviewing whatever documentation the police sends about how it’s following up with people.
Desjarlais said after her meeting with police it wasn’t clear what, if any, recourse she might have, and said she still has questions about her options.
“It seemed as though … he didn’t give me any recourse. He didn’t give me any information. Like, if I wanted to file a formal complaint or resources of who I could contact, things like that,” she said.
“This isn’t justice, somebody coming to meet with a family member … Are they doing this just for face value? Because that’s what it kinda feels like.”