Warning: This report contains details of violence that some readers may find disturbing.
A woman in Inuvik is raising concerns about the treatment of Indigenous women by RCMP after she says she was forcibly stripped by male officers without another woman present and denied medical attention.
The woman, who asked Cabin Radio that she not be named, said she felt “violated” by the incident at the police detachment and she plans to make a complaint to the RCMP.
“I want justice for other people too,” she said, adding she’s aware of other incidents where people have been mistreated by police.
In a court document based on the woman’s memory, police reports, and CCTV footage, the woman’s lawyer, Tú Pham, alleges that police contravened her Charter rights and used excessive force. The claims in the statement have not been heard in court and RCMP refute several of the allegations.
According to that document, the woman was arrested and detained by RCMP in Inuvik early in the morning on March 20, 2020, after they received a complaint that she assaulted her domestic partner at her home. The woman claimed she was the one who was assaulted, but police did not take her seriously.
“I did nothing wrong,” she told Cabin Radio. “They didn’t even assess me.”
While in RCMP cells, the woman showed signs of harming herself and she told an officer she needed to go to the hospital. The officer responded that she would have to remove her clothing and wear a prisoner’s smock – an item of clothing meant to prevent people in custody from hurting themselves – before he would call an ambulance.
The woman said when she refused to undress in front of the two male RCMP officers and male guard that were present, an officer threatened to forcibly remove her clothing. Documents claim the woman then retreated to a bench at the back of the cell away from the officers, and when cornered with no way to escape, kicked an officer to stop him from doing so.
That officer responded by punching the woman in the face several times with a closed fist, the statement alleges, then both officers “suddenly and violently” pulled her off the bench, causing her face to slam on to the cell floor. The document goes on to describe the officers pinning the woman to the floor and forcibly removing her clothing over a period of three and a half minutes while she “repeatedly pleaded with the officers to stop assaulting her.”
“I wasn’t resisting,” the woman told Cabin Radio. “When he did start getting rough with me, I kicked him in the leg, and that’s pretty much all I did while I was in there.”
The officers left the woman crying in the corner of the cell wearing nothing but her underwear until she covered herself with the prisoner’s smock.
They did not bring her to the hospital until approximately 10am the next morning. There, a doctor found the woman had swelling on the right side of her face, early bruising around her right eye, tenderness around her nose, neck support muscles and her abdomen, pain in her neck, and recent bruising on her upper arms and right hand.
The woman claimed police also went into her home without a warrant, despite her objections. Officers said they needed to retrieve some of the woman’s and her partner’s belongings. Court documents state when inside, police conducted a visual search for signs of an altercation but found none.
Officers had to act due to ‘urgency of harm prevention,’ police say
In an emailed statement, RCMP told Cabin Radio that on the night of the incident, there was no female guard on duty and “due to the urgency of harm prevention, the male members were required to intervene.” Police said the woman was “combative” with police when they requested she put the clothing on.
RCMP said an ambulance was not immediately called as the woman’s “condition did not appear to require medical attention.” They also said she was informed of her rights and given access to legal aid.
While police charged the woman with two counts of assault causing bodily harm and one count of assaulting a police officer, those charges were stayed by the Crown on April 13, 2021. That was three days after Pham, the woman’s lawyer, filed a motion for a stay of proceedings on the grounds that officers had violated her Charter rights.
In response to a request for an interview, a representative from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada emailed a statement to Cabin Radio saying there are a number of factors the Crown must consider when deciding to proceed with a prosecution, including Charter motions. In this case, the representative said, the Crown stayed the charges as they no longer met the standard for prosecution – meaning prosecutors did not feel there was a reasonable prospect for conviction or that prosecution would not best serve the public interest.
‘It really is abysmal policing’
“Public prosecution services in the Northwest Territories obviously wants to bail out of this as fast as it can,” Rob Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University told Cabin Radio.
He said the incident described in court documents would “probably be considered totally inappropriate” in any modern police orgnazation in North America, and – if the claims are accurate – RCMP in Invuik “have a lot to account for.”
“It really is abysmal policing … where you have a group of males essentially forcefully removing the clothing of a female, for whatever reason, without there being another female present in the room,” he said.
“Even if there was no ill-intent, the optics are appalling and the impact on the woman must have been devastating.”
Erick Laming, a PhD student at the University of Toronto who researches police use of force and its impact on Black and Indigenous communities, said he is also troubled that the woman was forced to undress in front of male officers and a male guard.
“That was very concerning to hear and troubling and there’s clear issues with that,” he said.
There have been past cases where that’s also been an issue, he said, but police services have put in procedures to prevent that from happening.
Laming said the incident described in the defence’s statement constitutes excessive use of force.
“From what I’ve read of the case, hard fist punching multiple times is unjustified,” he said, noting there were two officers against one woman.
“It’s sad because it didn’t have to get to that situation, it didn’t have to escalate to that type of incident.”
Laming also highlighted the woman not getting medical attention right away as an issue and said it’s troublesome if police did not inform her of her rights or why she was arrested for half an hour.
“Police are there to be the ones informing us of our rights and if they’re violating that, they’re taking advantage of the people … and that can escalate situations, especially when a person is in an agitated state,” he said.
“There’s a lot of problems with the case and you would hope that police are better trained on dealing with these cases and not to escalate them and to know the proper procedures and policies and informing people of their rights.”
RCMP said they have not received a formal complaint related to the incident.