Members of Walk For Justice, calling on the government to address the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women, in 2008. Photo via Flickr user mrmillroy.
The UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples has joined native groups, all the provincial premiers, Canada’s opposition parties, and various UN countries in their call for a national inquiry into the disturbingly high number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. In his report released Monday, James Anaya called government initiatives to address the problems faced by native people “insufficient” at all levels. He pointed out that “the well-being gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada has not narrowed over the last several years, treaty and aboriginals claims remain persistently unresolved, indigenous women and girls remain vulnerable to abuse, and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among indigenous peoples toward the government.”
Almost 1,200 aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered since 1952, which is twice as many as advocacy groups had previously estimated, as the RCMP confirmed earlier this month. During his research, Anaya heard “consistent, insistent” calls for a nation-wide inquiry into the women’s deaths. He recommends the government listen to these calls and write a comprehensive report with the help of indigenous groups, something the Harper government has been avoiding for a while. “I am sure it is because they are afraid of us,” Michèle Audette, the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada said in a previous interview.
A national inquiry “would give an opportunity for families to be heard but it would also look at what [Anaya] called unresolved issues that continue to have women and girls vulnerable to abuse,” said Jean Crowder, the NDP critic for aboriginal affairs.
The UN report says that aboriginal women make up only four percent of the population, but 16 percent of murdered women. (Oh and women make up 73 percent of all victims of solved homicide if you count dating homicide, which apparently Statistics Canada doesn’t always do.) And homicide statistics are just one of many categories that feature aboriginal women in hugely disproportionate numbers. Native women are “even more disproportionately incarcerated than indigenous individuals generally” and are the fastest-growing population in federal prisons, said the report. They face gender discrimination under the Indian Act, as women who are impregnated due to rape or incest can’t get native status for their child.
“Because of the disproportionate numbers and the lack of action, this somehow sends the message that these women are not worth the attention, and that simply should not happen in Canada,” said Crowder. “We pride ourselves on our human rights agenda and if that’s not a violation of human rights when women are treated differently or victimized more often, I don’t know what is.”
Many of these issues come back to the “distressing” socioeconomic conditions of Canada’s indigenous people, which Anaya called “the most jarring manifestation of these human rights problems.” The chronic lack of housing in native communities has a ripple effect, contributing to other problems, such as high rates of respiratory illness, depression, and family violence. The economic gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians is shocking—of the top 100 communities on the Community Wellbeing Index, only one is First Nations, but 96 are on the bottom 100. “Ongoing issues around poverty, lack of access to housing, lack of access to education, lack of job opportunities, all compound violence in a number of ways,” Crowder said. For example, she noted that there are fewer legal and economic support structures for women on reserves who are looking to escape domestic violence.
Bernard Valcourt, Canada’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, released a statement in response to Anaya’s report. In the statement, he pats himself on the back for committing $25 million over five years to reduce violence against aboriginal women and girls—a move that Audette told me was “a slap in our face.” She said the funding was already committed to family violence programs, and just got a shiny new name.
A few hours later, Minister Valcourt released an additional statement, this time boasting that he gave native women the same rights as other Canadians and provided reserves with drinkable water. Neither of Valcourt’s statements mention any plans for action on the “continuing crisis” Anaya describes in his report, other than saying briefly that “challenges remain.”
Minister Valcourt’s second statement also said that he increased “the level of transparency required for First Nations in line with those of other levels of government in Canada.” In reality, indigenous governments are the most over-reporting level of government, because any community that receives funding under the Indian Act is required to produce about 100 reports every year, something that Minister Valcourt might know about his own department, if only he had read Anaya’s report before responding to it in a press release.
This “level of transparency” is hardly something to be proud of, as the burden of unnecessary paperwork impedes governments’ abilities to provide services and “has been perceived by First Nations to reinforce a negative stereotype of aboriginal people and governments as incompetent and corrupt,” according to the UN report. This is a stereotype that has been reinforced as recently as today, in a SUN Media op-ed that claims “most Canadians” feel as if “there isn’t enough accountability” amongst First Nations governments. This requirement of over-reporting that SUN and Minister Valcourt want to draw our attention to is one of the many things Anaya recommended the government stop doing right now. Valcourt’s press secretary Erica Meekes responded to my request for an interview by emailing me a copied-and-pasted version of the statement I said I had questions about.
“There are some places in the report where Mr. Anaya does acknowledge that there are some things that have been done and that was all he focused on,” said Crowder of Minister Valcourt’s response. “I didn’t see him focus on language like ‘debilitating poverty,’ ‘lack of trust,’ or ‘broken relationships.’ It was a very diplomatic report, but it’s clear to me, at least when reading it, that we are losing ground. And Minister Valcourt’s response does not acknowledge that we are losing ground.”
After the murder of Loretta Saunders in February, Audette told me if the government still refused to act, we would see “just how bad and mean and stubborn the Prime Minister and his government really is.” Seeing as the federal Minister in charge of aboriginal issues bragged about measures the UN recommended he cease in the very report he was responding to, chances probably aren’t great we’ll get a comprehensive, nation-wide inquiry into our country’s 1,200 dead aboriginal women.