Pressure continues for national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Pressure continues for national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women

Calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women continue to mount despite resistance from the Conservative government.

The government of Newfoundland and Labrador and the two opposition parties on Friday jointly called on Ottawa to set up an inquiry, joining Nova Scotia's similar united request Thursday in the wake of the murder of Loretta Saunders.

The 26-year-old St. Mary's University student, an aboriginal woman from Labrador, was killed one month ago. A man and woman who were subletting her Halifax apartment have been charged with murder.

Aboriginal groups have held vigils across the country, including on Parliament Hill, in the last week hoping to budge the government.

“Violence against aboriginal women and children is a serious problem, both in our province and across Canada,” Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Tom Marshall said Friday, according to the St. John's Telegram.

“We are calling on the federal government to launch an inquiry into the tragedy of missing and murdered aboriginal women in this country, and we are prepared to work with the Government of Canada on such an inquiry.”

[ Related: Outcry ensues as Tory-dominated committee nixes inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women ]

The sentiment was echoed by the province's opposition.

“The recent tragic death of Loretta Saunders has made the circumstances surrounding the high numbers of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls even more troublesome,” Liberal leader Dwight Ball said, following the House of Assembly's passage of a unanimous resolution.

“It is clear that this is a crisis that must be addressed immediately.”

But the renewed call for a national inquiry in the wake of Saunders' death has not moved Prime Minister Stephen Harper of his entrenched reluctance.

"I remain very skeptical of commissions of inquiry generally," Harper said last May, CBC News noted.

"My experience has been they almost always run way over time, way over budget, and often the recommendations prove to be of limited utility."

Inquiries and royal commissions indeed have a reputation of delivering hefty reports laden with recommendations that often gather dust on Ottawa shelves.

But proponents of this inquiry say the situation of aboriginal women across Canada demands detailed study.

The Native Women's Association of Canada's fact sheet on missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls documented 582 cases up to March 31, 2010. Of those, two thirds were the result of homicide or negligence, 20 per cent were missing women or girls and other deaths were from either suspicious or unknown causes.

The association's research indicated that between 2000 and 2008, 10 per cent of all female homicide victims were aboriginal, although they make up only three per cent of the female Canadian population.

Although the database's first case dates from 1944, most are more recent, with 39 per cent dating from 2000.

And the record is by no means complete. Independent researcher Maryanne Pearce said she found 871 aboriginal women and girls, missing or murdered in Canada as of last week, CBC News reported. Of the 3,482 cases she found, about 23 per cent were aboriginal women, said Pearce, who began the research for her doctoral studies.

Some of the cases are well known, such as the victims of serial killer Robert Pickton, most of whom were drug-addicted aboriginal women prostituting themselves in return for drugs. Pickton hunted them on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Then there are women who've been killed or disappeared while hitch-hiking along northern B.C.'s Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears. Nine women, eight of them aboriginal, went missing or were killed between 1989 and 2006 but some believe the number of victims is much higher.

With such a daunting array of cases spanning decades and all parts of Canada, it's legitimate to ask how an inquiry would be focused to avoid Harper's beef that it would be a costly waste of time.

The locations, timeframes and circumstances differ widely. What would the terms of reference be?

Lawyer Bruce Wildsmith said it's a daunting challenge but it would be possible.

Wildsmith acted for the Union of Nova Scotia Indians during the Donald Marshall Inquiry, a 1990 royal commission that looked into the 1971 wrongful conviction of the Mi'kmaq man.

"Despite the complexity, despite the cost that might be involved, it is a process that I would suggest is worth undertaking," he told CBC News this week.

"I don't think it would be feasible to do the 700 or 800 individual cases. You could look at it from a broader social perspective: that is to ask why so many of them are aboriginal."

The push for an inquiry comes largely from a feeling that police treat crimes involving aboriginal women differently from non-aboriginals. An inquiry could test that view, Wildsmith said.

But can such an inquiry be anything more than an exercise in consciousness-raising?

B.C.'s inquiry by judge and former attorney general Wally Oppal following the initially botched police handling of the Pickton investigation produced a raft of recommendations, which the government pledged to implement.

[ Related: Do we need a national inquiry into missing or murdered aboriginal women? ]

Last year it issued a status report on which had been completed and which were still in progress. Critics naturally attacked the government's performance but at least there's a road map.

This week, Attorney General Suzanne Anton announced a dozen grants worth $845,000 to organizations to implement some of the inquiry's recommendations, including reopening a Victoria teen drop-in centre, peer-driven aboriginal outreach and support for battered women's services.

“We’re able to use this money to continue to make significant progress on our response to keeping vulnerable women safe,” Anton said, according to the Victoria Times Colonist.

NDP women's critic Maurine Karagianis said the funding, part of $5 million coming from proceeds of B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office to meet the inquiry's recommendations, is a good start but doesn't go far enough.

None of the money is going towards organizations that deal with rural and northern B.C. women along the Highway of Tears, she pointed out.

If there's sufficient will, a tightly focused national inquiry that produces actionable recommendations could be useful.