One of Melina Laboucan-Massimo's most important jobs in life was to be a good big sister to Bella, who was seven years her junior. Overnight on July 20, 2013 everything changed. At the age of 25, Bella died after falling 31 stories from a downtown Toronto condo.
"It was such a shock when it happened that it was—still is really a shock—I never would have thought that this is how my little baby sister would leave this world," says Laboucan-Massimo.
Toronto police list Bella's death as suspicious and her case remains open.
"This has just been a really big eye-opener for me to, in my struggle, to think about how many more families members are going through this across the country," says Laboucan-Massimo.
Between 1980 and 2012, 1,181 indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada. The figure was recorded last year in a report compiled by the RCMP, but even the RCMP note that officers don't always record ethnicity; there could be a lot more. One researcher pegs the number at over 4,000 going back to 1946.
Indigenous women account for 16 percent of female homicide victims, despite Aboriginal women only making up just over four percent of Canada's female population. Indigenous women over the age of 15 are almost four times more likely to experience violence than non-indigenous women. If indigenous women are sex workers the figures are even higher.
It's a systemic problem indigenous communities and human rights organizations have been urging the Canadian government to take action on for decades, but the government refuses to recognize the elevated levels of violence as anything beyond crime despite the historical record.
The unanswered calls from the public for a national inquiry into the situation have resulted in premiers organizing a three-day national roundtable that began today, with representatives from the Assembly of First Nations and other indigenous organizations meeting with provincial and territorial representatives. Family members of murdered or missing women and survivors like Rinelle Harper will also be attending.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that violence against indigenous women is a crime problem, not a "sociological phenomenon" in press conference after Tina Fontaine's body was found in Winnipeg. (Yesterday, a coalition of organizations including Amnesty International released a report debunking Harper's claim.) In December, he told CBC News that the idea of launching a national inquiry "isn't really high on our radar, to be honest." His office did not respond to media requests for this article. Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt told the Ottawa Citizen that indigenous men are the problem: "Obviously, there's a lack of respect for women and girls on reserves."
In lieu of meaningful government action, community-based organizations have filled the void for decades. They've advocated for justice in front of the United Nations and Amnesty International, held 25 years of vigils and memorials, conducted research, created an online database of the missing or murdered women and built cross-country support networks for families and loved ones, and called for the government to conduct a national inquiry, indigenous and non-indigenous supporters alike: conduct a national inquiry.
Unsurprisingly, the roundtable has some feeling skeptical.
"The roundtable is a political save face, there's no commitment to do anything," says Pamela Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer and associate professor at Ryerson University.
Audrey Huntley is one of the organizers who's been involved for over a decade in these efforts and conducted a cross-country trip to speak with family members. She says the past 12 months has brought unprecedented media attention to the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women.
For Huntley, the current scenario feels familiar. "I don't have a lot of faith in the government investigating itself and we have an experience to draw from which is the BC Missing Women Inquiry which is commonly referred to as a sham," she explains.
She points out all the recommendations various reports have made to various levels of government—most of them never implemented. (Amnesty International et al's most recent report corroborates her claim.)
The action the government is most famous for taking on this issue was cutting the funding to the Sisters in Spirit research project on murdered and missing indigenous women, a widely supported project among indigenous communities. Then, in Feb. 2014, the government announced that it would allocated $25 million to addressing the problem and even tabled an action plan in Sept. 2014 that would be implemented between 2015 and 2020. Minister Kellie Leitch told the House they'd heard from victim's families directly. This month, an investigation showed many of the indigenous groups cited as consultants on the plan say they were never contacted.
In a statement from Status of Women Canada, spokesperson Léonie Roux confirmed Leitch and Valcourt will be representing the federal government at the roundtable. "We have heard from victims' families that now is the time for action, not more studies, and that's what we are committed to," the statement reads.
Huntley understands why there's support for the inquiry among family members. "There's been so much societal indifference and that is really painful for family members to endure. I think that's why there have been increased calls [for an inquiry] because it would validate that this is an issue."
Palmater admits the value in an "open, expansive inquiry" that would show the role of Canadian institutions and anti-indigenous stereotypes in relation to missing and murdered indigenous women. But she feels an emergency action plan is what's needed now—and she's done with waiting for Canada to act. This spring she's heading to London, England to explore whether the sovereign state could force Canadian hands to take action.
Therese Villeneuve, the chair of the AFN's women's council, is hopeful about the roundtable. In fact, she was part of the decision-making team who chose to go for the roundtable "instead of just waiting in limbo."
Dawn Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada who will be presenting at the roundtable echoed Villeneuve's sentiments. She's hoping for a commitment from all levels of government and national indigenous leaders on next steps in addressing this crisis to come out of the roundtable.
"We're not making any progress by trying to shout from outside the walls so we're hoping that you know this is an opportunity to get our foot in the door."
Villeneuve agrees with Huntley and Palmater that skepticism is always there when dealing with the federal government, but she's clear that though the AFN and others are seeking the support of the government through this roundtable, she doesn't see the government implementing solutions. "It has to come from the grassroots level. I don't think the government can come up with the answer."
For Laboucan-Massimo, whatever action is taken, "first and foremost I think it needs to include families that are actually impacted by these deaths."
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