RCMP privacy rules limit northern access to Clare's Law

Advocates worry the RCMP's refusal to participate in new provincial domestic violence legislation could hurt northerners most and strain municipal police services.

Saskatchewan is the first province in Canada to enact Clare's Law, with the aim of preventing domestic violence before it happens. The law lets a person find out if a partner has a violent past and make informed decisions based on a risk assessment.

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“If this new legislation and program can save even one life, it will be well worth the effort,” Jo-Anne Dusel, executive director of the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan (PATHS), told Canada’s National Observer.

Dusel explained that the process works by approaching a municipal police force and telling them you would like to make an application under Clare’s Law for information on an intimate partner for yourself, a close friend or family member.

Once the police force finishes its analysis of the file, it is transferred to a multi-sectoral committee for review and disclosure within one month of the application.

Women and girls in northern Saskatchewan are the most at risk for violent crimes and intimate partner violence in the country according to data from Statistics Canada.

But the RCMP, the only police force in the far north, hasn’t signed on because it says federal privacy laws don't allow it to disclose that kind of information.

The Saskatchewan RCMP said in a statement that it remains “committed to helping” anyone with domestic violence concerns “through processes that have always existed for the RCMP,” such as calling 911 or filing a report.

Also, the RCMP said criminal convictions are public information and already accessible.

Saskatchewan's new legislation is modelled after “Clare’s Law” in the United Kingdom, named after a young woman killed by a boyfriend with an undisclosed six-year conviction for holding another woman at knifepoint for 12 hours.

“We hope that by implementing Clare’s Law we can inform those at risk and help protect them from potential violence and abuse,” Saskatchewan Justice Minister and Attorney General Don Morgan said.

At least for now, northerners wanting to make applications through Clare’s Law will need to contact their nearest municipal police force, none of which are in the north.

“Persons who think they are at risk are able to apply to a municipal police service for a Clare’s Law application,” the justice minister's spokesperson Marieka Andrew told Canada’s National Observer.

In the case of someone living in Black Lake, for example, that would mean contacting the Prince Albert Police Service, 890 kilometres south by road. That municipal police service might then need to contact the RCMP for information under its jurisdiction.

Dusel said she was consulted on the legislation and was involved in developing training programs for police units in Saskatchewan.

“Intimate partner violence is extremely underreported… We know that just because there isn’t something in a police report or any convictions does not mean that that person would not use violence in a relationship,” she said.

“Some research would suggest one in five, but my anecdotal experience as a shelter worker for 20 years was that about one in 10 of the women who came and stayed at the shelter involved the police in their case,” Dusel said.

She said the extra strain of having to deal with an out of area police service is real and adds to the problem, but she’s hopeful the RCMP will change its tune.

“When the news first broke, it sort of sounded like the RCMP were just opting out. Now what we’re hearing is that maybe they’re still considering working on this in the future,” Dusel said.

Dusel said that northern residents will need to work through already overwhelmed municipal police services hundreds of kilometres away as they process files outside their jurisdictions.

“I know that there is some concern about the potential for a real burden on some of the municipal police forces, but they’re not going to deny the service,” Dusel said.

Dusel noted that many rural, remote and northern residents do not have access to private phonelines or the internet and rely on one-on-one contact to file reports.

According to Statistics Canada, northern Saskatchewan has the highest per capita rates of violence against women and girls in Canada — six times higher than the rest of the province and higher than the territories when looked at separately from the southern part of the province.

Front-line workers reported that calls to women’s shelters initially dropped during the pandemic, likely because of fears related to maintaining social-distancing guidelines. But that pointed to something darker as calls for support services went up.

“What we’re seeing is an increase in calls for support assessment and safety planning, but calls to actually come into the shelter are down,” Dusel told Canada’s National Observer in April.

“We know that rural and remote areas experience higher rates of intimate partner violence and intimate partner homicide already, part of that potentially being that lack of access to services nearby. So when you throw in this pandemic into the mix, there are additional challenges,” Dusel said.

Clare’s Law is being considered in the neighbouring province of Alberta, which also has high rates of intimate partner violence in northern areas patrolled by the RCMP.

Manitoba’s conservative government has also been vocal in support of such legislation, but has yet to make good on its promise.

Newfoundland and Labrador introduced legislation in 2019 for a Clare's Law protocol to be developed.

“Given that Saskatchewan is not the only province that is looking at implementing Clare's Law across the country, having a national police force not involved doesn't make a lot of sense,” Dusel said.

The justice minister's office told Canada’s National Observer that it has asked the RCMP to review its decision regarding full participation in Clare’s Law.

“We remain hopeful that the RCMP will assist residents with their interpersonal violence concerns,” Andrew said.

In a written release, the RCMP said it “is continuing to look into the matter, and considering how best it can support Clare's Law objectives within its obligations under the federal Privacy Act.”

But the Saskatchewan government said information released to Clare’s Law applicants is subject to a stringent review process to ensure the disclosure does not violate privacy legislation.

The RCMP said that whether or not victims and survivors decide to report violence to police, they can reach out to local victim services, shelters, cultural and community health centres, Indigenous friendship centres and other community centres for support.

Dusel said that victim services through the RCMP might be able to assist in terms of access to phones or internet and that if there is a women’s shelter nearby, to go to them and request help with the application.

“Go somewhere in your community and ask for support in making a call to whatever municipal police force is nearest and work through the process that way. If there’s a shelter, you can get assistance there for working through the process,” Dusel said.

“Any person who makes the application will be connected with services so that they can discuss what’s going on, make a safety plan for themselves and they can have an idea of what to watch out for in the future.”

The justice ministry added that residents in regions policed by the RCMP should approach their local detachment with any emergency circumstances or situations requiring protection. The RCMP can then link individuals to victim services in their jurisdictions.

Saskatchewan has one Indigenous police service, which operates in the southern part of the province. The File Hills First Nations Police Service is the same as a municipal police force for these purposes.

If you or someone you know are experiencing violence or abuse, crisis centres remain open at all hours. If you are in danger, you can call 911. A full list of women’s shelters in Saskatchewan can be found on the PATHS website.

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