An arm of the Organization of American States is calling for a Canadian action plan or nationwide inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
An inquiry is needed, but it should do more than gather the tragic statistics with which we are already familiar. It should be specifically focused on finding solutions. We don’t need another report collecting dust while more lives are lost.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released its report Monday from an investigation the commission conducted in Canada in 2013. The commission’s main focus was on B.C., since this province accounts for 28 per cent of murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada, but its report said what happens in B.C. reflects a pattern across the country.
Claudette Dumont-Smith, executive director of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said: “This requires leadership from the government of Canada, since its leadership and participation is necessary in order to ensure nationwide co-ordinated, effective efforts.”
In total numbers, far more nonaboriginal women are murder victims than aboriginal women, but it’s the ratio that is shocking. Indigenous peoples account for 4.3 per cent of Canada’s population, yet 17 per cent of women murdered over the past 30 years were aboriginal.
It’s a heartbreaking situation, but not particularly mysterious. While the commission says a “fuller understanding” is needed, the underlying causes are fairly obvious and have been for generations.
“Indigenous women and girls constitute one of the most disadvantaged groups in Canada,” says the report. “Poverty, inadequate housing and economic and social relegation, among other factors, contribute to their increased vulnerability to violence.
This persistence of longstanding social and economic marginalization has given rise to large numbers of indigenous women living in vulnerable situations, including homelessness, and abusive relationships. It has also led to the disproportionate engagement of indigenous women in highrisk activities such as hitchhiking, drug use, gang activity and prostitution.
“They face discrimination on multiple fronts: as women within their home communities due to the patriarchal legacy of colonization, as women in mainstream society and as aboriginal persons in mainstream society.”
The commission’s report dwells at length on the frustrations families of murdered and missing women have experienced. Its recommendations are aimed at ensuring police take more seriously reports of missing aboriginal women, and that victims’ families get access to information.
But the action plan should go far beyond that. The problems are deeply rooted in the past, and solutions will be difficult, but not impossible. They include better housing, social programs, better educational and economic opportunities, and stronger supports to help families stay intact.
Yes, those measures cost money, but they will pay off. Poverty, isolation and lack of opportunity spawn substance abuse, crime and violence, which cost all of us dearly.
This holds true for any sector of our society where poverty rules, but Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples and the paternalistic Indian Act have exacerbated the problems.
The rights commission’s report acknowledges that governments in Canada are aware of the problems and have been taking steps. It cites the federal government’s statement: “Canada has been clear that abhorrent acts of violence will not be tolerated in our society, and remains committed to take action to address the situation of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in Canada.”
Those words need to be backed up by concrete measures, and those measures cannot be imposed from above – they must be worked out by all groups affected. The involvement of aboriginal women and First Nations leadership is crucial.
While a deeper understanding of the issue will be helpful, let’s remember that the statistics are not merely numbers. They represent real people and suffering families.
Originally posted in Victoria Times Colonist January 14, 2015