PM Must Respond on Murdered Native Women

James Saunders, second from right, brother of missing Saint Mary’s University student Loretta Saunders, attends a candlelight vigil at the Grand Parade in Halifax on Feb. 25. The body of the Inuit honours student was found a day later in the median of the Trans-Canada Highway near Moncton. A couple to whom she sublet her apartment are charged with her murder. (TIM KROCHAK/Staff)

James Saunders, second from right, brother of missing Saint Mary’s University student Loretta Saunders, attends a candlelight vigil at the Grand Parade in Halifax.


With an election in the offing, calls for the Conservative government to launch an inquiry into the murder or disappearance of almost 1,200 aboriginal women since 1980 got a boost this week.

A report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, has called for an inquiry or an action plan on the issue following its 2013 cross-Canada probe.

Despite a growing chorus for a public probe, the Harper government has been strangely dismissive, calling the deaths and disappearances criminal matters. But even a 2013 RCMP report calls for a broader societal response to deal with the problem.

Asked about an inquiry, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said, “… It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest … our ministers will continue to dialogue with those who are concerned about this.”

The PM may not be concerned, but plenty of other Canadians are.

Aboriginal women die violently about four times as often as other Canadian women.

The RCMP report found that more than 1,000 First Nations females were murdered between 1980 and 2012. Native women go missing at almost three times the rate of non-aboriginal Canadian women.

The statistics are grim, but even sadder are details surrounding the deaths of some of the women and girls like Tina Fontaine, 15, of Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. Her body was wrapped in plastic when it was pulled out of the Red River in Winnipeg last summer.

Then there’s the killing of Loretta Saunders, 26, a Labrador Inuit who was studying violence against aboriginal women for her honours degree in Halifax. The couple who sublet her apartment has been charged with her murder.

Canadians, with daughters, wives, mothers and sisters of our own, are shocked and frustrated by the mounting death toll among women who are more vulnerable than most.

The Harper government points to some 40 reports on the issue since 1986, arguing resources should be spent on addressing problems, not on study. It also implies that the fix lies in native communities.

But that view ignores the absence, until recently, of native women’s groups at the table when the issue has been discussed, historical and societal issues that put aboriginals at risk and the fact that many of those almost 1,200 girls and women have gone missing or have been murdered off reserve. This is a Canadian problem that goes far beyond First Nations.

Both the opposition NDP and Liberals have promised public inquiries.

If Mr. Harper has a better answer than a broad, society-wide discussion of a pressing problem that will engage us all in finding real solutions to help women and keep them alive, he should tell us what it is.