The stars are aligned and the moment is now to launch what could be the new Liberal government’s first important act of national healing — a public inquiry into the cases of more 1,200 murdered and missing indigenous women.
Justin Trudeau promised such an investigation during the election. He pledged to spend $40-million over two years on an inquiry into “root causes.”
Racism and sexism are almost certainly the deepest taproots of the problem; you can’t doubt they need to be exposed to daylight by a public inquiry. But beyond exposing those root causes, it’s not too much to hope that fresh and thorough investigations could actually solve some of these cold cases.
Momentum for an inquiry got a nudge last month when many indigenous people decided to get involved in the political process by voting in a federal election for the first time. These new voters now need to see that politics can matter to their families and communities.
Canada’s First Nations were never part of the political calculus of Stephen Harper and his Tories. Harper scoffed at the idea of an inquiry when he was the prime minister. But now — wonder of all wonders — the new Conservative leadership in the House is on board.
Interim Tory Leader Rona Ambrose, a former minister responsible for the status of women, has found her voice and is now expressing support and promising co-operation.
Compassion is in vogue again in Ottawa. But even with the best of intentions, the new government could find itself bogged down by systemic inertia. Beware the federal lawyers. Beware the RCMP. They are the bog people.
Given half a chance, the lawyers in the Justice department will write the most restrictive terms of reference for the inquiry. They’ll spend months drafting and redrafting a lengthy document larded with legalize that will confound the public and limit the inquiry’s scope. Federal government lawyers are the high priests of the secrecy cult that became the state religion under the Harper government. History suggests that this inquiry will be a success only if it is as open and public as possible.
Consider the federal commissions of inquiry held over the past decade into how federal officials dealt with the cases of Muslim Canadian men who were tortured in prisons in the Middle East on the basis of misinformation originating in Ottawa.
The first inquiry — into the case of Maher Arar — was created by the Paul Martin government. Its terms of reference ordered maximum public disclosure. It cleared Arar of any suspicion of terrorism and cleared the way for a $10 million compensation payment from Ottawa.
In the wake of the Arar case, Harper’s government reluctantly approved an inquiry into the cases of three other Canadian Muslim men whose circumstances were similar to those of Arar’s case. But the second inquiry was designed by the Harper government to be secretive. No public hearings. The public version of its final report was heavily censored.
Fortunately, Trudeau’s new Justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, is politically astute and not likely to fall into the secrecy trap. She’s an experienced lawyer and a former First Nations’ leader in British Columbia, the province where many of these crimes were committed. Nobody in her department knows this file as well as she does.
As for the RCMP, well — they’re the police force that was responsible for investigating many of these cases in the West. Many Mounties won’t want to be questioned in public about what they did or didn’t do. Some may try to dodge accountability, claiming public disclosures can damage ongoing investigations.
The Mounties should not be allowed to make that call. It should be the call of the independent commission of inquiry — an inquiry empowered to force officers to testify and given a mandate to follow the evidence wherever it may lead.
Many indigenous people suspect the Mounties already know more than they’re letting on. They suspect some cops may have sexually abused women. The women may have been forced to flee their communities to get away from their abusers. This scenario — the police officer as abuser — is not unheard of. Aboriginal women in the remote northern community of Val-d’Or, Que., recently came forward with allegations that provincial police have been sexually abusing them for more than two decades.
Canadians were stunned 16 years ago when a former Mountie was convicted of trying to rape a 14-year-old Cree girl on the Pelican Narrows reserve in northern Saskatchewan. The case was already 30 years old by the time it was properly investigated and prosecuted. By then, the Mountie had left the force and had gone on to win election to Parliament.
The Pelican Narrows scandal is the perfect rejoinder to cops or anyone else who claims that cases have gone so cold there is no point in reviewing them. In Canada, it should never be too late for justice.
More from Jeff Sallot available here.