Call the inquiry

September 1, 2014

“I think, though, this is not a time to commit sociology.”

—Prime Minister Stephen Harper, April 25, 2013

On August 21, facing new calls for an inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled out of the Red River in Winnipeg, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “I think we should not view this as sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime.”

By this logic, violence against Aboriginal women and girls has no systemic causes. Violence against Aboriginal women and girls requires no distinct response from the government. Yet Aboriginal women are “three times more likely to experience violent victimization than non-aboriginal women,” according to Statistics Canada. They are far more likely to be the victims of homicide, with over a thousand missing or murdered Aboriginal women and girls by the RCMP’s own count. These rates of violence have remained unchanged over the past decade.

In response to the ongoing and disproportionately high levels of violence experienced by Aboriginal women and girls in Canada, an increasing number of Aboriginal leaders and organizations are calling for a national public inquiry into the systemic discrimination, misogyny and racism that contribute to the ongoing violence.

"Tina must not disappear into the oblivion of statistics: almost 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women over the past three decades,” said David Langtry, acting chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, responding to news of the Winnipeg woman’s murder. “We have a duty to ensure she leaves a legacy, and that her legacy is to bring an end to the chronic cycle of violence that rips Aboriginal women and girls from the fabric of family and community at this alarming rate.”

Some have voiced concerns about the ability of an inquiry to deal fully with this issue. The Missing Women Commission in British Columbia was widely criticized for failing to include the families of the missing women in the process. As a result a wide spectrum of individuals and organizations withdrew their support from the B.C. inquiry. There is broad agreement that any inquiry must be fully inclusive and must result in meaningful action to address the problem.

At the recent Council of the Federation meeting in Charlottetown, Canada’s premiers repeated their own call for a national inquiry. “We’re hoping that if we can keep the pressure on the federal government, we will see a reversal in their decision,” said Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz, before the conference got underway. “I think when the provinces are united as we are, together with the national aboriginal leadership, I think there is momentum,” added Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall shortly afterwards.

It is hard to know for certain why the federal Conservatives have resisted an inquiry for so long. Is it to score political points from tough-on-crime supporters, some of whom no doubt hold subtle or not-so-subtle prejudices toward Aboriginal Canadians. Or is the government’s position based more on a neoconservative ideology that says there is no such thing as society, and therefore no sociological phenomena to study?

In either case, the position is untenable. The federal government should listen to Aboriginal leaders, human rights groups, the provinces and the United Nations by calling for a public inquiry. To deny the request would be yet another abuse against the needs of a group—the victims of crime—this government claims to champion.

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