Two things become immediately clear when you meet Kellie Leitch: she's all business, and she's a doctor.
You realize the former because she's got the kind of intensity that is usually only reserved for gritty police chiefs from TV procedural crime shows. You realize the latter because she mentions it. A lot.
Leitch was only elected in 2011, but was quickly promoted in 2013—she became minister for both labour and status of women. Before entering politics, she was an orthopaedic surgeon (one day a month, she still is, as she continues to operate at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario).
Her rise to becoming one of the more high-profile ministers is quite telling. Labour and status of women are generally considered junior posts.
But for Leitch, partially through her own initiative and partially through unexpected events, both portfolios became suddenly quite important.
But arguably the most high-profile part of Leitch's job in the last year has been her work on addressing violence against First Nations women.
Her government has long been resistant to the idea of holding a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women—something that has been consistently called for by just about every group involved in the matter.
Even a roundtable held earlier this month, organized to try and address criticism that the government isn't doing enough on the file, was met with derision after the fact by Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, who told CTV that "everybody expected more." He said there was a mood of "frustration" around the table.
As the government's spokesperson on the matter, Leitch has repeatedly said that her government has studied the matter enough, and is now taking action. She says Ottawa already has 40 studies on file dealing with the issue of violence against indigenous women, and there is no need for any more.
Yet, as VICE reported last May, many of those 40 studies have nothing to do with the matter at hand. Several of those supposed studies are just press releases—including several from groups like Amnesty International, calling for a federal inquiry. Others are simply statistical reports counting the number of aboriginal women in Canada. One paper is counted twice.
Only 13 of the papers on that list relate to violence against First Nation, Inuit, and Métis women.
Nevertheless, the government has introduced an action plan to address the violence, which is generally considered a step forward by stakeholder groups. The plan involves a pot of money that will be disbursed to community groups, women's shelters, and victims' services, coupled with changes that allow women to own their own property on reserve.
But even many of those who support the action plan—including the families of those who have lost family members, some of whom are still missing—still say Ottawa needs to address the issue by studying exactly why indigenous women are so severely over-represented in the statistics of women who are murdered and missing.
So VICE put the question to Leitch: why not?
VICE: What are the actual, deliverable goals for the action plan to tackle violent crime against aboriginal women and girls?
Kellie Leitch: What we're focused on is eliminating violence against women and girls—that isn't just about aboriginal women and girls. The plan is based on consultations I did across the country, speaking to families that have been victims of these heinous crimes. They talk about prevention programs: They want their communities to be able to stop this continual, generation violence. They want education for men and boys, making sure they understand appropriate behaviors. They want support for victims of these crimes, making sure that aboriginal women and their children have access to facilities that they need, supports they need if they've been victims, and then also making sure that they're protected. So the $25 million, over five years, that was announced in the budget last year is divided between some community safety programs—we've established 30 so far—that obviously look to prevention. That money also goes to ensuring that shelters are supported, particularly to family violence prevention programs. The RCMP are also working to identify the most at-risk communities. We're also providing funding for liaisons between families and the criminal justice system, for those families to actually get the information on what happened to their family member, or how they can proceed with legal action. And, on the protection side, we're empowering women in particular in able to protect themselves. We know one of the most substantive ways that women, not just aboriginal women, can protect themselves is to be economically independent and allowing them to develop the skill-set they need in order to continue to be so is essential. So those are the substantive areas that families talk to me about. I was also concerned that we didn't have a coordinating body for organizations that were working with these families. So, as of April 1, Status of Women Canada will become the coordinating liaison, so that if a family does have a question or if an organization wants to apply for funding, they have a one-stop-shop. They can reach out to Status of Women Canada.
Even many of those who support your action plan still support the idea of an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women. What about the action plan removes the need for an inquiry?
We have had numerous studies looking at this. We've had hundreds of recommendations. We don't need more lawyers looking at what the problem is. We need people acting on the problem so that these families are supported so that these families have answers to their questions. We're not going to achieve more by looking at the same issue and having more lawyers write more documents. We're actually going to help these families—and the families have told me this directly—we're going to help them by making sure they're more supported. We're going to help them by making sure they, and their community are safe so that they, and no other member of their community are victims of these crimes. We're going to make sure that they are safe.
You say that there's been enough studies done, but if you look at the list of those 40 studies, there's actually very few that looked at this issue specifically. And those that do, studies like the Oppal Commission—which found widespread problems in policing, in the community, in government response—why not do something like that?
I've read Wally Oppal's report. I've spoken to him. I'm delighted that he's come out in support of what we're doing. Those are great things. We have a responsibility to look at what's been tabulated in terms of recommendations and start to act on them. We're working through that.
Provinces and territories have meaningful impacts on these, as do the bands' leadership. Which is not to say that we're not going to contribute our part, because we are. But we have a collective responsibility to move forward on this.
The Oppal Commission's recommendations were very specific to British Columbia. Do you have enough of that research that applies to Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the North...
I think that we do. Having looked through these reports—I can't say I've read every one-
I did. Those reports simply don't apply to the East Coast, or the North-
I won't deny that. Many of them are very specific to specific areas. But when I have gone out and speak to families—and I've spoken to many of them, in British Columbia, in Alberta, in Manitoba, in Saskatchewan, in Northern Ontario, in Halifax—the same issues come up at the table every time. And I have to tell you, even I was surprised at how consistent the issues they raised were, and how consistent their solutions were. Even I was surprised by that. But it made it easy, then, to chose where to start. A parent usually knows what they need, and a sibling knows what's occurred to their sibling if something's gone amiss. They were so consistent over what is required. Mom after mom, sister after sister: some brothers, even, coming and saying that the thing that would have been the most valuable to our family is making sure that there was support for my mom when she knew she couldn't have been at home. Someone for my family, to work with them and the police.
One of the things the Oppal Commission identified as being problematic was police stigma around sex workers, around First Nations—general policing issues. Meanwhile, on-reserve police are facing a lack of resources. Don't you think this is an issue that can be further studied?
Your point is well taken. Last year, there was augmented funding provided to on-reserve policing. It's definitely been an issue and it's something that our government has started to address. There's been several chiefs that've raised it with me. And I understand that. To your point about policing: it's very important. Because we know who are perpetrating these crimes. The RCMP report was very telling on a few levels. First, that aboriginal women and non-aboriginal women suffer the same level of crimes perpetrated by people that they either intimately know, are married to, or are very close acquaintances with—91 percent. There wasn't some bias with respect to that. We know who these people are. No offense to the guys in the room—it's men these women know. If we know that, we can act on it. We can go and we can study this continually but, in my profession, if we see things happen 90 percent of the time, consistently, always the same. We don't continue to research it. We act.
One of the results of the Oppal Commission was to pull back on going after sex workers. This government has obviously done the opposite, with its new anti-prostitution bill. Has there been enough consideration of that?
Women are put in harm's way and communities are put in harms way when prostitution is allowed and perpetuated. These people are being exploited for sex. And if you think that isn't yet another form of violence against women, that's wrong. Many of these women are trafficked, and what we need to do is to intervene to ensure that that doesn't continue to happen. One thing that we are doing as part of the action plan funding is to offer substantial funding to allow people to exit the sex trade altogether to have better lives. Do I think prostitution, and allowing it to occur is good for communities? No I do not. Do I think these women are victims are violence? Absolutely they are. Do we have a responsibility to help them remove themselves from this horrible lifestyle? Absolutely we do and we are. Part of that is social supports in order to help transition to a better life.
Those in the sex trade have said that criminalizing the purchasing of sex makes it harder for women to communicate with police, to deal with police, and to report things to the police, or to even to operate in a police where police could be. Isn't that going against what women are actually saying?
I think that any woman who is experiencing violence should know that any police officer in this country will help to remove them from that violence. So if you think we can have some semantic conversation about this and it will change things, it will not. What's going to change this is making sure that women who are experiencing violence in any form feel safe to come forward. What we are doing is trying to provide that circumstance, whether it's through our Safe Communities Act, our Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practises Act, what we're doing on human trafficking, or whether it's funding that allow women to have economic independence so they can feel comfortable and transition to a better life and making sure they will be protected when they make that choice. I don't know if you've ever met a woman in an emergency department who's been beaten or raped. I don't know if you've met a child who's shown up in your emergency department who's been beaten black and blue. But I can tell you that when people experience that type of violence, they're looking for safety and the police have the responsibility to provide it. Our government is doing everything we can to do that. What I find concerning is that the opposition continues to vote against these legislative items as well as funding proposals to ensure that these families are protected and safe, particularly these women and children.
This interview has been edited for clarity, length, and style.