If the inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women results in another massive report gathering dust on government shelves, it will have been a pointless exercise. Its focus should be on solutions.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was launched this week. Over the next two years, it should focus on what must happen to correct the conditions and attitudes that make life so dangerous for aboriginal women in Canada.
The government should be prepared to support a call to action with the resources needed. Some solutions are likely to be expensive, but failure to find and apply remedies will cost more, especially in terms of human lives.
The toll is already too high. The RCMP say nearly 1,200 aboriginal girls and women disappeared or were killed between 1980 and 2012. Statistics show aboriginal women in Canada are four times more likely to be murdered than non-aboriginal women. The number of missing women could be much higher — figures vary from agency to agency — so it would be useful to come up with some hard numbers.
But if the person involved is your sister, daughter, aunt or mother, even one is an unbearably hard number.
It is not the inquiry’s task to solve crimes. There is no judicial component to the commission and it is forbidden to interfere with criminal investigations. (If relevant information comes to light, it can be forwarded to the appropriate prosecutors.)
The horrible deeds of Robert William Pickton notwithstanding, the statistics suggest it’s unlikely that a serial killer is stalking the land, preying on First Nations women.
Nearly 90 per cent of the murders of aboriginal women are solved. RCMP statistics show that 62 per cent of perpetrators were spouses, family members or intimate partners. Another 30 per cent were acquaintances; only eight per cent were strangers.
But the contributing factors are no less deadly than a serial killer. Previous commissions of inquiry have already presented ample evidence of the poverty, isolation, lack of opportunity and systemic racism that plague native communities. The residential-school era and the deliberate attempts by the government to assimilate native peoples are not wispy ghosts from the past, but real and tangible elements of today’s suffering.
We should not pretend that only aboriginal women suffer — the rate of murdered indigenous men is even higher than that of women. But where the root causes are the same, the solutions could apply to all.
Chosen to lead the commission was Marion Buller-Bennett, B.C.’s first aboriginal female judge, whose expertise and perspective will be valuable to the inquiry. While the commission is empowered to compel witnesses to testify, Buller-Bennett does not appear inclined to wield a heavy gavel — she prefers a more informal approach.
She also says it will be up to First Nations to determine “where the commission is invited to come.” Sensitivity is important, but the inquiry must be able to ask difficult questions and go where it is needed. If it is constrained, the commission will look like a whitewash effort more concerned with not offending sensibilities than getting at the truth. It would be a disservice to indigenous women to allow anyone — aboriginal or not — to tell the commission where it is welcome.
An inquiry cannot bring back the dead or find those who are missing. The main purpose should be to get a better understanding of what happened in order to prevent it from happening again.
Previous commissions have produced voluminous reports, and this commission is likely to do the same. The words are important, but they are useless if they do not result in meaningful and concrete actions.