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With the Conservative Government still refusing to hold a public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, a new RCMP report has underlined an issue that most First Nations have already known: something is very wrong in Canada.
The report, the first to compile complete statistics of just how broad the problem is, found that there are at least 1,181 missing or murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Of those cases, 19 percent remain unsolved.
Putting a number on the endemic problem—albeit, a possibly understated one, as older cases may not have catalogued the ethnicity of the victims—has underscored the enormity of the issue that activists have been sounding the alarm on for over a decade.
The RCMP’s report confirms many of the suspicions that have been held by those activists—Canada’s criminalized sex trade has put the lives of hundreds at risk, at least one serial killer appears to be operating on the West Coast, and things aren’t getting any better.
Only 60 percent of murders involving sex workers have been solved, while a mere 36 percent of missing persons cases involving Aboriginal women have been solved, excluding runaways.
In British Columbia, there are 40 unsolved missing persons cases involving Aboriginal women, and 36 unsolved murders. There’s little doubt that the Highway of Tears—the 800-kilometre stretch of highway where it's believed that at least one serial killer operated—is a huge contributor to that number.
Despite the issues raised by the report, the Harper government has continued to dismiss the idea of holding a national inquiry into the matter. The NDP and Liberals have been highlighting the issue in the House of Commons for over a year. The Conservatives haven’t budged.
When Manitoba MP Niki Ashton got up to ask whether the government truly believes that nothing more could be done on the issue, she was almost shouted down by heckling from the government benches:“What we do not need is haughty, condescending questions from the opposition,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay launched back; which prompted further unproductive shouting.
The government has pulled out a list of funding commitments they’ve made, and reports that have been done over the past few years, to explain why the inquiry is unnecessary.
When the RCMP report came out, the government was quick off the draw with a press release lauding their accomplishments.
“This year, in Economic Action Plan 2014, we committed an additional $25 million over five years to continue our efforts to directly address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. We also committed more than $8 million over five years towards supporting a national DNA-based missing person's index,” MacKay said.
But the brother of one of those women says the government’s spending promises aren’t good enough.
Ernie Crey is probably one of the most authoritative voices on the matter in the country. His sister, Dawn, went missing from Vancouver’s downtown eastside in December 2000. It is believed that Robert Pickton, Canada’s most infamous serial killer, abducted her—though charges were never laid.
Crey went on to found the Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement Society (ALIVE), which is dedicated to improving the quality of life of First Nations in Canada’s poorest postal code, and ultimately getting them out of the area.
VICE asked Crey whether Ottawa’s promises were enough to address the issues that have contributed to the crisis. He was succinct.
Crey lauds the Harper government for making the funding announcements that they have, but says it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
“They can go ahead and make these improvements… and that’s terrific. But this doesn’t give us a well rounded, complete picture of what’s going on in the country in terms of an examination of those social physiological, political, policy, and programming issues that are all in play,” said Crey.
“I don’t think they're there yet, I don’t think they’ve got what they think they’ve got. I think the government is wrong on that score.”
Crey is unequivocal—Canada needs a national inquiry with a set mandate, a committed budget, a clear goal, and input from the families that have lost their daughters, sisters, and mothers.
But the Conservatives have pivoted onto the voluminous amount of reports that have already been released. They say there’s no more need for study.
MacKay, in one particularly heated session of brow-beating from the opposition, threw a stack of reports onto the floor of the House of Commons.
One of those reports that the minister tossed appears to have been the product of the British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. That inquiry was struck after the Pickton murders. It, as Crey put it, was a “damning” look at how police managed the crisis.
It remains the most extensive and thorough report on missing and murdered Aboriginal women—but even it was sharply criticized by families for being limited, sexist, rushed, and subject to political interference. Plus, that report was limited largely to the Downtown East Side.
The Ministry of Justice provided VICE with a list of the 40 reports that the government says makes the need for a national inquiry moot.
Yet, that list is a bit misleading.
Only 23 of those 40 reports were commissioned by the federal or provincial governments. The other reports and position papers were released by a variety of First Nations and human rights groups (like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch)—most of them explicitly call for a national inquiry.
Of the government reports, three are Statistics Canada reports. Confounding, as Statistics Canada does not compile the number of murdered and missing Aboriginal women. One of these statistical reports cited by the Conservatives as addressing the issue of murdered and missing women is merely a census count of the number of First Nations women in Canada.
Several other of the reports have little to do with the situation at hand—one is a 13-page Library of Canada report on the residential school system. Another is a brief overview of a young Aboriginal women’s summit from the Yukon.
Two reports are from the House of Commons standing committee—meaning that they were written by Conservative Members of Parliament.
In the list, the report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was counted twice.
Of the 40 reports that the government has hung their hat on as proof that a national inquiry is necessary, only 13 (dating from 1996 to 2012) directly relate to violence against First Nations women. Most of those reports had no public consultation component, and almost all are from the provinces.
That means the closest thing that the Canadian government has to a national report is the RCMP’s release from last week.
“If anything, this RCMP report doesn’t obviate the need for the need for a national inquiry. It supports the need,” says Crey.
Crey says his sister suffered from mental illness, drug addiction, and poverty that simply wouldn’t allow her to leave the downtown eastside. He says that any national look at addressing the violence against Aboriginal women also has to address the inherent discrimination against these women.
He says that, if this situation is to be addressed, support services need to exist, and that the ghettoization of these communities needs to end. And those issues don’t uniquely affect women. As VICE reported this week, Aboriginal men are also disproportionally the subject of violence.
Ultimately, the RCMP’s report is a step forward in terms of bringing this issue further into public consciousness. But given the near-consensus of activists, families and, well, just about everyone else, there’s growing frustration with the Conservatives’ stubbornness.
What’s more, concern is mounting against the Conservatives’ upcoming prostitution bill, which analysts expect will introduce the so-called ‘Nordic Model’—criminalizing the purchasing of sex—that, some sex workers say, will make life more dangerous for women on the street.
Given that a disproportionate number of those murdered and missing women had ties to the sex trade, unfortunately, pessimism appears to come hand in hand with those looking for a solution. A "Nordic model" of sex work cannot possibly improve this dire situation, as such a system will only push these women further underground. @justin_ling