More organizations and Canadians calling for national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women

From the

Pressure mounts for national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women

Published: Monday, 03/17/2014 12:00 am EDT

Aboriginal groups and opposition members say they will continue to pressure the federal government to establish a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, following a committee report that excluded such an inquiry from its recommendations despite overwhelming support from witnesses.

The Assembly of First Nations, the Native Women's Association of Canada, Human Rights Watch, the Canadian Women's Foundation, the Elizabeth Fry Society, British Columbia's Representative for Children and Youth, federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime Sue O'Sullivan, and several individual witnesses all told the Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women that there needs to be a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, but the Conservative-dominated committee omitted their calls from its final recommendations to the government.

Michèle Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), called the final report "unbelievable."

She said that her organization agreed to participate in the committee's hearings on the condition that it was able to advise the committee on witnesses and terms of reference.

"We have so much expertise and knowledge to share that we were ready to join forces with them, we were thinking that it would be different this time," Ms. Audette told The Hill Times. "If we had that dialogue, that frank conversation, we could build better programs, polices, and services for the women. It's not there in the 16 recommendations. It's too soft. It's not putting the government in a position that it must act."

Many of the committee's 16 recommendations, tabled in Parliament on March 7, either endorse existing federal initiatives or advise the government to further examine issues around violence against indigenous women. Recommendations include the creation of a public awareness and prevention campaign, continued strengthening of the Criminal Code and current anti-human trafficking initiatives, and the further examination of policies aimed at protecting women and girls. The government is required to respond to the report within 120 days tabling, by July 5.

The report also endorses initiatives already introduced in the 2014 federal budget, such as the creation of a national DNA database for missing persons, and investments in First Nations policing. 

This year's budget pledges $8.1-million for a missing persons' DNA database, but funding does not begin until 2016. The budget also pledges to invest $22.2-million in an "Aboriginal Justice Strategy," as well as $25-million over five years to address violence against aboriginal women and girls. Details are limited, however, and the latter investment will not begin until next year.

Ms. Audette dismissed the recently-announced initiatives as political strategy. 

"I feel that they're going through a charming process with First Nations people for the next election," she said. "It's all money for 2016. It's just an electoral approach."

The committee did acknowledge that several witnesses called for a national inquiry aimed at developing a coordinated national action plan, but stopped short of calling for an inquiry in its final recommendations. 

Conservative MP Stella Ambler (Mississauga South, Ont.), chair of the committee, defended the report and said that it was in line with what the families of victims wanted: action.

"We heard that the families wanted the government to take action, and the recommendations reflect that," Ms. Ambler said. "Where there were calls for a national inquiry, many of the calls came with a request to use that inquiry to look at root causes. Frankly, we didn't hear in a year of testimony and work what we didn't from the previous 40 reports. If we don't have a pretty good idea of what the root causes are by now, then frankly I don't understand how one more gigantic report will actually help us."

Aboriginal groups and opposition critics have rejected the committee's final report, however. The Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and NWAC are just a few of the organizations that have pledged to continue to press the government for a national inquiry.

AFN Alberta Regional Chief Cam Alexis questioned what the purpose was for the nearly year-long study, which heard from more than a dozen aboriginal associations and communities, fifteen individual witnesses, the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP, and the departments of Justice, Public Safety, Aboriginal Affairs, and Status of Women.

Chief Alexis commended the MPs for their work on the study, but said that the final recommendations do not reflect what the victims and their families called for."If you look at it, was it just a procedural exercise to report to Parliament, or is there an actual will to move ahead for the benefit of our missing and murdered women?" he said. "I firmly believe that we still need a national public inquiry, because you have many, many reports out there, and perhaps what needs to be done is these reports need to be looked at seriously as to what the common threads are that we need to work on."

Chief Alexis acknowledged that there were positive recommendations in the report, but it does not go far enough in addressing the issue.

"A national public inquiry will put all the information such as the Oppal inquiry - which is specific to British Columbia, the reports such as the [Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples], put them all together to develop a clear process for action," he said.

Aboriginal women and girls are at a much higher risk of victimization in Canada-a long-standing trend that dates back decades. According to Statistics Canada data submitted over the course of the committee's study, aboriginal women are three times more likely than non-aboriginal women to be victims of violence. Thirteen per cent of aboriginal women had been victims of violence within the preceding 12 months, according 2009 data presented by the agency.

Although aboriginal women account for only four per cent of Canada's female population, they represent at least eight per cent of homicide cases in Canada between 2004 and 2010. Assessing the scope of the problem has been made more difficult by poor policing records and data sharing between different agencies.

Proponents of a national inquiry say that there's little sign that existing programs are working, and the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women remains unknown. Ongoing research by the Sisters of Spirit project, which had its federal funding discontinued in 2011, had identified 582 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. Subsequent research by NWAC puts the number of cases at 824.

"This isn't a First Nations problem, it's a Canadian problem and we all need to work together," said Chief Alexis. "When we see our loved ones lying on the streets it's very painful. I've had a few of those myself. If you haven't lived it, you don't really know the impact. It's painful."

Public support for a national inquiry is also growing. In February, NWAC submitted a petition of more than 23,000 signatures to the federal government calling for a national inquiry. Relatives of Loretta Saunders, a young Innu women and Saint Mary's University student recently discovered murdered by the side of a New Brunswick highway, have started an online petition calling for a national inquiry. Their petition had received more than 220,000 signatures by the end of last week.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) government has repeatedly stated that there have been enough reports on the issue and it does not intend to add another report to that list.

Following the tabling of the committee's report on March 7, Justice Minister Peter MacKay (Central Nova, N.S.) said in the House of Commons that another study would be "the biggest mistake."

He later tossed papers in the House of Commons and gestured for Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Man.) to pick them off the floor after the opposition MP asked that the minister table all of the previous reports in both official languages.

Ms. Audette said that a national inquiry would have the benefit of being "non-partisan," "independent," and "legal."

"That's major. We would be able to investigate what went wrong with some of these case," she said. "Something is wrong right now, and it's just increasing instead of going down, while this government says they're proactive. There's something wrong."

Ms. Audette said that her organization is now working to mobilize aboriginal women to participate in next year's "crucial" federal election.

"I told [Aboriginal Affairs] Minister Valcourt that he has an opportunity here to improve and commit to real change and a better relationship or we have another government. Women will vote and we're promoting this... It's going to be very exciting," she said.

Opposition MPs have also criticized the special committee for lacking independence from the government by including six Parliamentary secretaries.

Conservative MPs Kelly Block (Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, Sask.), Parliamentary secretary for Natural Resources; Lois Brown (Newmarket-Aurora, Ont.), Parliamentary secretary for International Development; Bob Dechert (Mississauga-Erindale, Ont.), Parliamentary secretary for Justice; Cathy McLeod (Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, B.C.), Parliamentary secretary for Labour; Susan Truppe (London North Centre, Ont.), Parliamentary secretary for Status of Women; and Mark Strahl (Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, B.C.), Parliamentary secretary for Aboriginal Affairs all sat on the government side of the committee and played a role in crafting the committee's final recommendations.Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul's, Ont.), her party's critic for aboriginal affairs, dismissed the report as a statement of government policy and criticized the Conservative MPs for "ongoing partisanship" in her dissenting report.

"I don't think any of us had ever seen a committee that had six parliamentary secretaries on it taking dictation from their ministers and the PMO. Looking back on it, what hope did we have that those members would be able to honourably listen to witnesses?" Ms. Bennett said.

Both the Liberal and NDP members of the committee called for a national public inquiry and a national action plan in their respective dissenting reports.

NDP MP and aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder (Nanaimo-Cowichan, B.C.) said that the committee's study was "flawed from the start" because of the government's control over the committee.

"It used to be that Parliamentary secretaries weren't even part of the committees because they represent ministers, they bring a particular agenda and approach that's really their minister's agenda," said Ms. Crowder. "It's difficult in that light to even talk about working cooperatively in consensus."

Ms. Ambler defended the presence of Parliamentary secretaries on the committee, however, and said it showed the government was taking the issue seriously.

"All of those [parliamentary secretaries] either expressed interest in serving on that committee or they had a particular responsibility related to issues of violence against indigenous women. It lends a credibility to the committee to have so many heavy hitters having sat on it," she said.

Ms. Ambler said that she is "disappointed" by the reaction that the report has received.

"What the recommendations ask the government to do is continue, but also to do more. That's why I think they're strong, and I hope and expect that the government will take them seriously," she said. "I think the report does that, and reflects the fact that things are obviously not perfect and that women are still being murdered and this is completely unacceptable and the government has to go further."


From iPolitics

A national tragedy lands in a bucket of whitewash

By  | Mar 10, 2014

Sharon Armstrong, of Ottawa, takes part in a vigil on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, March 5, 2014, for Loretta Saunders and to call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

When it comes to announcing less-than-flattering news, politicians know the best time to do it is late on a Friday. With the weekend looming (so the thinking goes) people have other things on their minds - and by the time Monday rolls around, the issue will be old news.

So it wasn't surprising to see the report of Parliament's Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women tabled last Friday. The reaction to the report was never going to be good news for the Harper government.

This report has been long in coming. The committee was created following a unanimous vote on a motion by Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett in February of last year - one day after Human Rights Watch released its own report documenting horrifying allegations of abuse against aboriginal women and girls by the very police forces that are supposed to protect them.

But despite the long wait, this report was a massive disappointment to anyone who was hoping for real movement on the epidemic of violence that aboriginal women and girls face in our country.

Bennett called the report "a total travesty of Parliamentary process." Niki Ashton, the NDP's Status of Women critic, called it "appalling" and "deficient in every way." The Native Women's Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations both issued statements declaring the report to be a disappointment.

Anyone wondering about the accuracy of those words should read through the report. It's obvious even to the casual reader how completely disconnected the report's 16 recommendations are from the witness testimony documented in the body of the report.

Consider the second recommendation of the report: 'That the federal government continue strengthening the criminal justice system to ensure, among other things, that violent and repeat offenders serve appropriate sentences.' If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the same tough-on-crime party line the Conservatives have been pushing for years.

Too bad it doesn't do much to prevent violence against aboriginal women and girls. Once you're at the sentencing stage, the damage has already been done. That recommendation certainly doesn't reflect the witness testimony collected in the body of the report.

When police officers delay investigating a young woman's disappearance because they assume she was drunk, high or selling her body, they don't need cultural sensitivity training. They need basic human decency - and they need to be held accountable.

Similarly partisan are the recommendations to "(empower) Aboriginal people through economic development opportunities and jobs and skills training" and to "take appropriate action to reduce human trafficking." There's no doubt that such initiatives are good ideas - but they don't reflect the biggest concerns of witnesses, who emphasized issues like police abuse and desperately-underfunded women's shelters.

A report on violence against women is not an appropriate place to drop campaign-oriented buzzwords, but that doesn't seem to have stopped anyone from inserting them into the recommendations wherever possible.

Consider also what's not in the recommendations. Witnesses who testified before the committee repeatedly called for a national inquiry into violence against aboriginal women - adding their voices to the chorus that has been demanding such an inquiry for years now. As the Liberals noted in their dissenting report, premiers from every province and territory have asked for an inquiry. But the report did not call for one.

Another common theme in the testimony of committee witnesses was the utter failure of police to adequately investigate reports of missing aboriginal women and girls. Witnesses said, over and over, that they were ignored or abused by police and slapped with racist stereotypes when they sought out help - that they were left to search for their missing sisters on their own.

Human Rights Watch recommended independent civilian investigations of all allegations of serious police misconduct. Tracy O'Hearn, executive director of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, recommended the creation of an ombudsperson to oversee people working in law enforcement and the justice system. But the committee report contains no recommendations for better oversight of police and their investigations. The closest the report comes is to recommend improved officer training "to foster cultural understanding and sensitivity."

When police officers delay investigating a young woman's disappearance because they assume she was drunk, high or selling her body, they don't need cultural sensitivity training. They need basic human decency - and they need to be held accountable.

But while we're talking about accountability, we need to look at the Conservative party. When Bennett asked Conservative MP Stella Ambler, the chair of the committee, during a recent question period if she thought the report "was improperly influenced by the six Conservative parliamentary secretaries on the committee, taking orders from the PMO," Ambler's answer was perfectly innocuous - and vacuous. What does it mean when a committee chair isn't able to offer an unequivocal "no" to a question about improper political influence?

NWAC has documented nearly 600 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in Canada, mostly over the last two decades. Given the failures in policing and data collection identified in the committee's report, the true number is almost certainly much higher.

This plague of violence against aboriginal women and girls is a stain on our country's soul. That stain only gets darker when our government indicates that it's perfectly content to stay the course . This report was an opportunity to take real steps to address the drawn-out tragedy that has dogged our country for decades. Instead, it's an insult added to the injuries that too many aboriginal women and girls have already suffered.

Devon Black is studying law at the University of Victoria. In addition to writing for iPolitics, Devon has worked for the Canadian International Development Agency, Leadership Africa USA and RamRais & Partners.