Report finds unhoused Indigenous women in Yellowknife are ‘over-policed and under-protected by the RCMP’

Indigenous women

A new research report from the Yellowknife Women’s Society (YKWS) has found that unhoused Indigenous women in the N.W.T. capital are “over-policed and under-protected by the RCMP.”

“What we heard is that there is a lot of urgency for all levels of government to take action on improving the relationship between the RCMP and unhoused Indigenous women,” said Neesha Rao, a co-author of the report and former executive director of YKWS.

“What we heard is that unhoused Indigenous women do not trust the RCMP. They’re afraid of the RCMP, and they’re often harmed by the RCMP, and they do not feel protected by the RCMP.”

The information in the 100-page report was collected in sharing circles involving unhoused Indigenous women living in the city who described being “abused, dismissed and belittled by RCMP officers.”

Comments from community service providers, elected leaders and RCMP officers also informed the findings of the report.

While YKWS’s report asserted that there’s a major rift between police officers and unhoused Indigenous women in Yellowknife, it also identified “gaps in much-needed services like mental health and housing in the NWT that directly contribute to a higher frequency of interactions between the RCMP and unhoused Indigenous women.”

The report laid out 24 recommendations intended to make Yellowknife a safer city for unhoused Indigenous women.

Some of those recommendations include establishing a police council with Indigenous co-governance; improving the hours and capacity of a mobile and crisis response team; expanding the community safety officers program in the NWT, including Yellowknife; increasing the number of low-barrier emergency shelter spaces in the city; enhancing and enforcing more mandatory training for RCMP officers in Yellowknife; increasing the supply of shelter spaces and supportive housing to reduce contact with police and providing in-territory, Indigenous-led mental health and addictions services and victim services to reduce contact with police.

Rao is hopeful that the recommendations will be taken seriously by the RCMP and policymakers at all levels of government.

“We made 24 recommendations because this is a very complex issue,” she said. “Simple steps like increasing housing, shelter services and funding for programs like [YKWS’s] street outreach van would go a long way towards reducing the frequency of interaction between unhoused women and the RCMP, and it would also reduce harm.

“One of the most important recommendations we’ve made in terms of policing is we’ve called for the Government of the Northwest Territories to conduct a review of policing in the territory and specifically in Yellowknife. They can follow the lead of Yukon, which has conducted a very similar review.

“Those are some very important first steps that could be taken in terms of making real action on improving the safety and well-being of unhoused Indigenous women living in Yellowknife.”

According to the report, 90 per cent of the unhoused population in Yellowknife is Indigenous, which stands in stark contrast to the fact that roughly a quarter of the city’s overall population is Indigenous.

The report included several quotes from anonymous unhoused women who shared their experiences with the researchers.

“I’ve been roughed up by three cops [at once],” said one woman. “I’m not that big, you know? That’s ridiculous.”

Another woman added, “Seeing how rough the police are with people downtown, it’s just unnecessary for them to do that, [to be] that harsh.”

“You get into a fight with somebody that abuses you downtown, it doesn’t matter, because you’re an alcoholic, [because you’re] Indigenous, because we’re homeless,” a third woman said. “We’re street people, we’re garbage, and that’s how they think.”

While it remains to be seen how YKWS’s report will be received by the RCMP and the government, Rao is optimistic that members of the community appreciate the urgency of the situation.

“I don’t get the impression that people are unaware,” she said. “I think that one of the best things about the North is how much emphasis we place on community.

“I am very optimistic that the community of Yellowknife – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — wants to take care of members of our community who are unhoused, many of whom are residential school survivors, ‘60s scoop survivors, the children of those survivors, and people who are currently living out the legacy of colonialism in the North.”

Story by Tom Taylor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, NWT News/North

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