Aboriginal Conservative senator pushes Harper government for public inquiry into missing First Nations women

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

A Conservative First Nations senator is pushing his government for a federal public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Sen. Patrick Brazeau of Quebec, named to the upper chamber by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008, told Postmedia News that the rising number of dead and missing aboriginal women shows Canada is failing to protect First Nations communities.

Last week, Brazeau took to Twitter to point out Ottawa held an inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in in B.C.'s Fraser River, the Winnipeg Free Press reported.

"Here's the Inquiry on Salmon," Brazeau reportedly tweeted, attaching a photo of the recently released 2,500 page Cohen Commission report. "Wish we could have the same for our Missing and Murdered Abo-Women!"

Brazeau, a member of the Kitigan Zibi community near Maniwaki, Que., told Postmedia News the Tory government has worked to reduce violence in aboriginal communities but more must be done.

"British Columbia released the findings of an inquiry on the disappearance of salmon (Oct. 31)," Brazeau said. "So why can't we have an inquiry on the disappearance of hundreds of women?"

[ Related: Manitoba hosts summit on missing, slain aboriginal women ]

In a November 2010 post on his blog, Brazeau pointed to the Conservative government's speech from the throne promising to "tackle the issue head on." But the measures he listed didn't include the promise of a public inquiry.

Brazeau told the Free Press that two years ago when Ottawa announced a $10-million plan to address the issue, he accepted it did not include an inquiry, but he doesn't anymore.

"Aboriginal women are deserving of this," he said. "I think it would shed a lot of light on what happens when someone goes missing."

Last month, the Assembly of First Nations and the Native Women's Association of Canada both demanded Ottawa launch an inquiry, Postmedia News reported. The government has made no commitment but pointed to $25 million being spent on First Nations policing and social programs aimed at reducing violence against aboriginal women.

NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder called the number misleading.

"The government has actually cut funding to a [specific] program that tracks the number of missing and murdered [aboriginal] women," Crowder told Postmedia News. "So the logic seems to be that if they don't make an effort to understand the extent of the problem, then it isn't their responsibility to fix it."

Crowder was referring to the government in 2010 cutting funding to Sisters in Spirit, which created Canada's only database of missing and murdered aboriginal women. Part of the government's $25-million investment in First Nations policing is being used to create a national centre for missing women run by the RCMP, but it will not keep separate data on aboriginal women, Postmedia News noted.

"It's ridiculous that this is presented as a solution geared towards aboriginal people," said Bridget Tolley, who worked alongside Sisters in Spirit after her mother Gladys was killed in 2001. "It feels like we're being swept under the rug, like the Conservatives don't want people to know how bad this truly is."

The issue has grown in public attention because many of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton's victims were First Nations women. He preyed on drug-addicted prostitutes on Vancouver's gritty Downtown Eastside, killing them and disposing of their remains on his suburban pig farm.

The B.C. government appointed former judge and attorney general Wally Oppal to head a public inquiry into how Pickton was able to kill for years before finally being caught. Critics claimed police were less motivated to look for the women's disappearances because they were aboriginal and working in the sex trade.

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Aboriginal women also make up most of the missing and murdered victims of the so-called Highway of Tears, a network of roads in central and northern B.C., over a three-decade period. A suspected American serial killer who died in a U.S. prison, has been linked to at least one of those murders.

Brazeau told Postmedia News he's serious about pressing for a public inquiry. Two women among the missing come from his hometown of Maniwaki.

"I knew their mothers, their families," Brazeau said. "It's something that tears communities apart, that you never really recover from."