A former premier and attorney general says police and other institutions should “hit the brakes now” on their follow-up work with survivors and family members who testified at the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
CBC News has learned the inquiry sent out roughly 125 referral letters, mostly to police services, instructing them to take “further action” related to specific matters of alleged misconduct.
Ujjal Dosanjh says the whole process should be assigned to an independent person of repute, to “see what can be done to redress some of those wrongs” detailed in referral letters sent to institutions across the country by the inquiry before its mandate ended.
The inquiry could not declare any person or individual institution legally at fault in specific cases but could refer matters back to those authorities if it came across information “that the Commissioners have reasonable grounds to believe related to misconduct.”
People like Dosanjh and a former lawyer who worked for the inquiry are taking issue with police investigating themselves and reaching out to family members and survivors to follow-up and say the process should be taken over by an independent body.
“Canada’s history is now replete with police having made mistakes, all over the country, not just in British Columbia. It’s time that we learned the lesson that you don’t re-victimize the victims by sending someone or the agency itself that might be under investigation, that might have victimized them in the first place,” he said.
Dosanjh said having police look into alleged misconduct by their own agencies “is a clear and blatant conflict of interest.”
Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, speaking in her leadership role with Union of BC Indian Chiefs, says it’s concerning that there’s so little known about what’s going on with these referrals and sees it as yet another injustice to those who shared testimony with the inquiry.
Wilson’s own family was contacted by RCMP about their testimony at the inquiry but she said it wasn’t clear how or why they were hearing from police.
“They’re just rolling out unilaterally,” she said.
“They’re re-triggering families, they’re re-victimizing families. They’re not really providing that justice that was called for.”
Former inquiry lawyer responds
Breen Ouellette worked closely with survivors and family members as a lawyer for the national inquiry who assisted with testimonies. It’s concerning to him to hear police are reaching out to people and having meetings with them about allegations levelled against their own agencies.
“I think that we are seeing that the police still don’t know how to handle complaints levied against their own members in a way that is meaningful and in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize the people making the allegations, the survivors of violence,” said Ouellette.
Vancouver Police Insp. Dale Weidman said the department talked with the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner (OPCC), the police watchdog organization for municipal police forces in B.C., about how to respond to the referrals. The OPCC told CBC News it has opened monitor files on all 13 referrals sent to the Vancouver Police.
“We have told the OPCC about these Section S referrals and what would you like out of this and you know, they’re like ‘yeah, look into them and investigate them,'” said Weidman.
Vancouver Police Deputy Chief Const. Laurence Rankin said there was never any discussion about sending the referrals to other agencies.
“I have every confidence that we would do a thorough investigation. I wanted to get the investigations or reviews completed expeditiously. Now that you’ve raised that point — could they have been sent to another agency? Sure.”
Juanita Desjarlais, who has met with the Vancouver Police about her referral is skeptical about the process that’s underway.
“Why is it that the police are investigating themselves, anyways? There should be an independent process and it seems a little unfair and biased. I don’t feel that I’ve been given or provided a fair process,” she said.
Rankin said if people have concerns about how their investigations are being handled they can reach out to the OPCC.
In an interview earlier this month, Rankin and Weidman weren’t aware of anyone who was concerned with how follow-ups were being handled.
Ouellette said, “from my own experience, the reason that the police will get the idea that nothing is wrong is because they’re in a position of authority and power.”
He said police could be well-intentioned but “as an outside observer who was involved in assisting the testimony of a number of individuals at the national inquiry, it’s easy for me to see how that male police officer in a position of authority and power would be very intimidating to somebody who has faced oppression at the hands of police.”
‘The time for having those blind spots is long gone’
Ujjal Dosanjh said this could be a blind spot for police but he isn’t sympathetic if that’s the case.
“The time for having those blind spots is long gone, long past. If we haven’t learned anything by now, then that is rather depressing.”
The RCMP said in a statement that the force would “not comment on allegations, nor can we comment on the MMIWG Inquiry’s process.”
The RCMP did say that complaints received from the inquiry “follow the established process for public complaints against the RCMP, which can involve both the RCMP and the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission.”
The findings in the national inquiry’s final report highlighted that “Existing oversight and accountability mechanisms for police services are largely inadequate and fail to elicit the confidence of Indigenous Peoples.”
Judy Wilson, secretary-treasurer of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said this finding speaks to what she sees happening now.
“It’s not justice for our survivors or our women and girls and families. They needed much more and there was much more hope given in the national inquiry calls for justice. This is another failure. We need to quit going down this road,” she said, adding that this amplifies the needs for government to step up and come up with action plans.
Ouellette said ideally, family members and survivors would have legal representation in this process, “but most of these people are not going to be in a position to bring in a lawyer.” The Indigenous Community Legal Clinic in Vancouver is offering free legal counsel to people in B.C. who are approached and want a lawyer to be involved with their meetings or follow-up.
A spokesperson from the federal department of justice told CBC News MMIWG family members and survivors can reach out to regional family information liaison units if they need more information.