The scene from a recent Missing Women's Memorial March. via Flickr.
Over the last thirty years—according to investigations by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)—668 aboriginal women have gone missing or were murdered in Canada. And yet, instead of launching a national inquiry, the Canadian government is biting the head off of anyone who suggests they should lift a finger and figure out how to fix this grave epidemic.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Liberals, NDP, Green Party, the country’s premiers, the UN General Assembly—in both 2009 and 2013—and plenty of NGOs have all pressed the government to investigate, but Stephen Harper and Co. are plugging their ears.
The most recent UN report, and rallying cry to investigate this matter, was part of the Universal Period Review (UPR)—meant to “promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world.” The review was met with support from not-so-humane nations like Cuba and Iran, and in response, Canada blasted the UN for allowing Fidel and Mahmoud to criticize Canada at all. How productive.
Perhaps the Tories need a refresher on debating 101: personally attacking your opponent to evade a topic is a fallacy.
But sure, I’ll accept that Iran is pretty bad with human rights and stuff even if their issues are completely unrelated to Aboriginal issues. And Cuba is Cuba. Let’s not even get into that.
But hold on a minute. Besides Iran and Cuba, Mexico, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, New Zealand, Norway, Belarus, Ireland, and Australia all suggested a national action plan or inquiry into missing Aboriginal women in Canada was necessary. So, why aren’t we listening?
What’s more, the UPR was led by a troika of Brazil, the Philippines, and Ireland—not Iran or Cuba—and was compiled with consultation from 48 Canadian NGOs including First Nation’s groups like the NWAC. But Canada has maintained that this is a national issue that the international community should basically butt out.
Not surprisingly, Canada has towed this line since before the UN even existed. Back in 1922, the Iroquois confederacy came hat in hand to apply for sovereignty at the League of Nations—because hey, First Nations are literally nations too—in hopes that the League could settle land disputes. But Canada made a fuss and convinced the League to let the issue remain domestic. Not much has changed.
In their response to the UPR, Canada highlighted a pretty good-looking list of plans to address Aboriginal issues in this country in an attempt to prove that a costly inquiry is unnecessary. I mean, what’s so great about public inquiries in the first place?
When an $8 million 1500 page inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women in British Columbia was published last year—focusing particularly on the impoverished Vancouver Downtown Eastside and the brutal murders of 26 women by the infamous serial killer Robert Pickton—Vancouver police, the RCMP, and even some of the victims’ families blasted it for being ineffective.
The daughter of one of the victims, Angel Wolfe, said at the final report hearing: “I think today has been a total sham, just like the whole inquiry has been.”
With unimpressive inquiries leading to very little progress, perhaps an investigation (external or otherwise) is necessary—if for no other reason than to confirm the exact number of murdered or missing women. The only national organization that compiled information about it has been the NWAC and their Sisters in Spirit project, but the government slashed its funding in 2010. Cash flow or not, with all respect to the NWAC, their numbers don’t hold as much sway as a federally-mandated inquiry would, especially when the RCMP says they can’t confirm the number based on their databases.
Speaking of lacking credibility, when Human Rights Watch came out with their report in February that concluded the RCMP and Vancouver police used torture, intimidation and rape against aboriginals in BC, the RCMP said the findings were useless unless the anonymous sources came forward. If I were one of those victims, I probably wouldn’t come to the RCMP either if they were the ones who brutalized me. But still, if a transparent public inquiry was done federally, perhaps these women could be given more protection than what Human Rights Watch can offer.
What is clear is that the issues facing aboriginal women in Canada—dubbed by Amnesty International as a “grave human rights crisis”—are not going away anytime soon. There is most certainly something to be said about the issue of violence against women in Canada in general, but when you look at the facts that Aboriginal women report sexual or violent abuse almost three times more than non-Aboriginal women, have more than twice the unemployment rate, and have the highest suicide rate in the world it’s hard to not immediately focus on First Peoples women. Unless, of course, you’re Stephen Harper.
In 2005, Paul Martin’s party was about to sign the Kelowna Accord, pledging $5 billion over five years to help fight the massive social inequalities gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, but Harper scrapped it as soon as he got elected. According to Terry Mitchell, a psychology professor at Wilfred Laurier University and Lori Curtis, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo, the Kelowna Accord would have saved taxpayers a whopping $115 billion by 2026 due to the load taken off of government programs that aboriginals rely on so heavily.
All of this is, unsurprisingly, generating a new wave of dissent amongst aboriginal communities in Canada. A paper by Douglas Bland of the Macdonald-Laurier think tank compiling research from Oxford warned that with the growing population of aboriginal youth—Canada’s fastest growing population, half of which live in poverty—could spur an insurrection that would cripple the Canadian economy from coast-to-coast.
Currently Idle No More is a peaceful and cultural protest movement, but while the government is busy spying on Idle No More activists, visiting pandas instead of meeting with Idle No More leaders on hunger strike and complaining about the UN—including an Ontario MP who suggested we “review” our membership— instead of taking action, aboriginal anger is mounting.
On October 7th, the UN will send Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya to Canada to lead another investigation into Aboriginal human rights issues in this country. Idle No more has scheduled a nation-wide protest for the same day, hoping to get the attention of the government while they are on an extended summer vacation before the Throne Speech on October 16th. Perhaps then the Harper government will listen to calls for an inquiry, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
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