Violence against Aboriginal women and girls is a national tragedy in Canada. In 2014, the RCMP released a report representing the first time police in Canada have attempted to identify the numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women in girls across all its jurisdictions. The report stated that between 1980 and 2012, at least 1017 Aboriginal women in girls were murdered, revealing a homicide rate at least 4.5 times higher than that faced by all other women. Further, it identified 164 unresolved cases of indigenous women or girls, missing for 30 days or longer. In a supplementary report in 2015 looking at only cases within RCMP jurisdiction (therefore excluding murders of Aboriginal females in all of Ontario and Quebec), the RCMP revealed 32 cases of murder of Aboriginal women in 2013 and 2014 alone. While painting a grim picture of the extent of this tragedy in Canada, Amnesty International has pointed to gaps in this statistical picture, as the report only includes cases where the investigating police force concluded that a homicide occurred, and police practices are inconsistent in establishing whether or not victims of these crimes are Aboriginal. Since there are currently no standards or training practices for police on how to correctly record the identity of victims, police may simply guess or record Aboriginal identity based on whether or not the victim “looks” Aboriginal to them. These figures entirely leave out the large numbers of unresolved or suspicious deaths not covered by the report, and the deaths of many Aboriginal women and girls are largely insufficiently investigated.
While revealing the importance of the issue, the RCMP reports do not provide any alternative means for action besides holding a national inquiry. As well as having gaps in its statistics, the report fails to include the voices of affected families and communities. As well, it does not provide any means for implementing identified solutions.
The government previously responded to this violence by framing it around the issues of “high-risk lifestyles” (referencing poverty, addiction issues, sex work and hitchhiking). Recently, the RCMP report has been misinterpreted and manipulated by its issuers to recast this crisis as a symptom of domestic violence exclusively within Aboriginal communities and reserves. While it is true that the majority (62%) of homicides with female Aboriginal victims reported by the RCPM occurred in the home, government spokespersons have ignored the fact that this is a significantly lower percentage than women in the general population (74% of murders of non-Aboriginal women are committed by intimate partners and family members). This means that there is a much higher rate of attacks on Aboriginal women and girls by acquaintances, including neighbors, employers, and authority figures.
It is also important to remember that in addition to facing far higher risks of homicide, Aboriginal women and girls are also three times more likely to experience violence than other women in Canada. It is critical that judicial attention be directed toward all forms of violence disproportionately faced by Aboriginal women and girls. Both of these framings have failed to capture the diversity and complexities of experiences of Aboriginal communities. Attacks on Aboriginal women and girls occur in a social context in where discrimination, marginalization and impoverishment put them at risk, and deny them the opportunity to escape violence.
Why is a national public inquiry important?
Amnesty International states that distributing accurate information on the patterns of violence facing at-risk populations is one of the most basic proactive measures governments can carry out. The Canadian government’s failure to do so implies a callous disregard for the human rights and safety of Aboriginal women and girls. A National Inquiry is the first step in ensuring public accountability of the state.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) has condemned Canada for its “grave violations” of human rights, due to “protracted failure” to undertake action to stop this violence. This committee has also called for both an independent national inquiry and a comprehensive, coordinated action plan. Under the Harper government, however, Canada made no commitment to change its programs or policies.
In rejecting the need for a national inquiry studying this issue, the government has referred to over 40 previous studies carried out on various aspects of Indigenous peoples’ lives in Canada. The vast majority of recommendations made in these report have gone unnoticed, and cannot be cited for justification for continued inaction.
The government response to this issue has been scattered and sporadic. Voices of affected families and communities have been entirely ignored by the Canadian government. Further, government officials continue to make statements that simplify and distort the issues, despite evidence that the violence is both pervasive and fueled by state-instigated policies. A national inquiry is needed as a means to hold the federal government accountable, accompanied by a clear commitment to actually ACT on the recommendations it produces.
Canada needs a national action plan to address gaps in current policies, programs and services related to the crisis of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. This plan MUST be developed in collaboration with Indigenous women’s organizations, who must receive full and effective participation in defining needs and solutions. An independent national inquiry must serve as a powerful tool in ensuring this national action plan is well informed and rigidly supported by those it governs.
It is important to note, however, that this inquiry represents only a small step toward the solution, and is not the solution itself. It must not be used to delay actions that can be taken immediately and it must not simply produce another body of recommendations that will not be acted upon by the government.
A Way Forward?
While Harper and his ministers refused the demand for both a national action plan and a national inquiry, preferring to view the issue as a law and order issue and implementing “adequate” crime prevention measures, Trudeau has emphasized a national inquiry as an important issue to his government. The new Liberal government under Justin Trudeau has outlined intentions to “renew the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.” He has stated that this renewal must be “a nation-to-nation relationship, based on recognition, rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.” Trudeau has stated that the government must implement recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission starting with the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He has stated a mandate to launch an inquiry on the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
The liberal government has said it will begin the process of consulting Canadians on how to best proceed with this inquiry within the next “couple of weeks”. The government has stated that this process will involve speaking with the families of victims, grassroots organizations and provincial and territorial representatives.
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