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Violence Against Indigenous Women: Need for Action Long Overdue

I have always remembered the words of a First Nations woman, a tireless advocate for action to keep Indigenous women in Canada safe – long before the issue was attracting any media or political attention. We were sharing the podium for a press conference on Parliament Hill back in 2004. She realized how crucial it was to make people understand how serious and widespread violence against Indigenous women and girls was, right across the country. She put it simply, noting that “every aboriginal community, family and individual in Canada has lost a sister, mother, daughter, niece, cousin, neighbour or friend to violence; no one has been spared.”

The release of a report from Human Rights Watch three weeks ago, Those who take us away, is yet one more reminder of what is by any measure one of the most serious human rights crises Canada faces. It is also yet one more disgraceful indictment of government failure to rise to the crisis and move forward with action that will meaningfully protect the human rights and ensure the safety of Indigenous women and girls across Canada.

Human Rights Watch paints a harrowing picture of violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls who live along northern British Columbia’s sorrowfully named Highway of Tears. The report points to systematic failures on the part of the RCMP to provide women and girls with the protection that is their basic right; but worse it also documents numerous allegations of violence – up to and including sexual assault – committed by RCMP officers themselves.

The report is a hard read; doubly so because governments in Canada should have responded to this glaring human rights tragedy years – in fact decades – ago.

No government, and certainly not the federal government, can plead ignorance. That is because the pile of such reports has grown ominously tall. Amnesty International has issued several, beginning with our Stolen Sisters report in 2004. Relatives of murdered and missing women have come together in groups such as Families of Sisters in Sprit and shared heartbreaking accounts of what has happened to their loved ones in rallies, campaigns and media interviews. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has spoken out tirelessly, putting reports, statistics, and recommendations in front of the nation. Parliamentary committees are on the record. And a growing list of UN human rights experts and monitoring bodies have repeatedly made clear that this alarming human rights failing needs to be resolved.

All of these voices have done much more than simply criticize and complain. They have laid out detailed and thoughtful recommendations as to the steps needed to bring this violence to an end. Most critical among all of those concrete suggestions has been the call on the federal government to work with Indigenous women’s organizations to develop a comprehensive and national action plan to address the unrelenting violence faced by Indigenous women and girls, and the discrimination that fosters and fuels that violence. Once again that recommendation tops the list in the Human Rights Watch report.

What could be more obvious and constructive? Yet the refusal of the federal government to take this step seems only to grow with each passing year. Instead, we see an ongoing array of piecemeal initiatives and cheque-writing; but with no attempt to do so in a coordinated and comprehensive manner. The attitude seems to be that as long as governments are doing something, anything, there is no need for a plan.

And there has been no meaningful effort to ensure that the solutions are truly grounded in the experience and perspective of Indigenous women and girls themselves. Instead, very often the action taken even deepens the sense of exclusion and marginalization that lies behind so much of the violence and discrimination.

A case in point is the recent provincial public inquiry in British Columbia examining what went wrong in the police response to the epidemic of murdered and missing women, many of them Indigenous, from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the agonizingly slow realization of the horrors unfolding at the Pickton Pig Farm. It was stunning to see the callous refusal of the BC government to ensure that Indigenous women’s groups would be able to participate meaningfully in the inquiry, such as by funding legal counsel to represent them. In the end, groups walked away from a process that was only reinforcing long-established messages that their views did not matter; even when it came to their own rights and their own safety.

Canada’s abysmal failure to deal with this crisis continues to draw international scrutiny. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has launched an investigation, currently underway. In April Canada’s record will be reviewed under the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, a review that comes around once every four years. Without doubt violence against Indigenous women will top the list of issues of concern that other government raise with Canada during that review. And will we simply try to obfuscate our way through that, once again acknowledging the problem but failing to commit to the action needed to address it?

Thinking back to those words from 2004, it is clear that we would not accept that sense of ‘no one being spared’ if a similar level of violence arose in other communities in Canada. If no one in Toronto was spared from the violence? If no Francophones were spared from the violence? No one in Manitoba? No one living in small towns? No one with a university degree? Or without one?

We can no longer tolerate this violence. We cannot wait for the next report; or the next UN condemnation. All of us must rise to the challenge and responsibility of bringing this human rights scandal to an end.

It is not an Indigenous issue. It is not a women’s issue. It is not a criminal law or social policy issue. It is a fundamental, national human rights issue; one of the most profoundly important that we face. No Canadian should rest until our governments make it clear they get that. The first step must be to embark on developing a national action plan. Now.

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