Year of heartbreak for aboriginal community doesn't shift Harper's stance on murdered women inquiry

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew
Year of heartbreak for aboriginal community doesn't shift Harper's stance on murdered women inquiry

As we roll toward another year, the prime minister affirmed once again that there are no plans for a national public inquiry into Canada’s high rate of murdered or missing aboriginal women, saying that the matter was not “high on our radar.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his federal government continue to reject calls for a formal study into the prevalence of aboriginal women whose lives end in violence, with opponents calling his latest tact unnecessarily “callous” and another sign that things won’t change.

“I’m not asking this government anymore to have a national inquiry,” said Michele Audette, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. “I wouldn’t believe at all in that process if he was putting something in place.”

During an end-of-year interview with CBC News, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reiterated that an inquiry was not “high on our radar.”

"[I]t isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest," Harper said in his interview with Peter Mansbridge. “Our ministers will continue to dialogue with those who are concerned about this. They’re studying it. But we have an awful lot of studies and information on the phenomenon and an awful good indication of what the record is in terms of investigation and prevention of these sorts of things.”

Throughout the year, Harper has remained adamant that an inquiry was not required, citing the high cost of previous inquiries on other issues, and the ability of the government to handle the matter without it.

In August, he said that the markedly high level of violence against aboriginal women should not be viewed as a “sociological phenomenon.”

Still, critics have persisted in their call for an official inquiry, with a number of high-profile deaths and disappearances this year only adding to the pressure.

NDP MP Niki Ashton, status of women critic, says the call for an inquiry has grown stronger over the past year, and it is disheartening to hear Harper take such a stand.

“This is an especially callous response from the prime minister,” Ashton told Yahoo Canada News. “At the end of the year, when so many parts of the country have been gripped by the murders, and discoveries, of young indigenous women.”

“2014 has been a year when indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians have mobilized in ways we have never seen before. The prime minister is out of touch from so many Canadians that see the need for real action. That action includes an inquiry.”

Ashton, who represents Manitoba’s Churchill riding, says the past year has been especially hard for her province. In a few short months, Tina Fontaine was discovered dead, and Rinelle Harper was sexually assaulted and dumped in a river. In recent days, another young woman, Angela Poorman, was stabbed to death in the north end of Winnipeg.

But Manitoba isn’t the only province where tragedy struck this year.

Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old St. Mary’s University student, was found dead in Halifax lats March - which prompted the leaders of both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador to call for an inquiry.

In August, the remains of Samantha Paul were discovered near Kamloops, B.C. Brandy Vittrekwa, 17, was found dead in Whitehorse earlier this month.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada says they have compiled 582 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women dating up to March 31, 2010. And an RCMP report notes that while aboriginal women make up only 4.3 per cent of the population, they account for 16 per cent of female homicides and 11.3 per cent of all missing women.

“Indigenous women who face the highest levels of violence, and highest levels of insecurity, have paid the highest price for a government that has failed them every step along the way,” Ashton said.

In his CBC interview, Harper said the government has made a “significant investment” in addressing the issue, and taken preventative measures such as creating protections under the Human Rights Act.

"I would rather spend my time focusing on what actions we can take to improve these situations, prevent these situations, than have more multimillion dollar inquiries," Harper said.

Ashton, however, said those government measures were piecemeal announcements that are “more talk than action or investment.”

Ashton has tabled a motion that would create a national action plan to address violence against women, which includes launching a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. That motion will come up for debate in the House of Commons in the spring of 2015.

“We put that forward as a result of the call that are getting louder and louder on the need of action,” Ashton said.

Audette says Harper’s latest comments only cement the understanding that nothing will change under this government. Earlier this year, she announced that she would seek to run in the next federal election, for the Liberals in Quebec’s Manicouagan riding, in order to highlight the plight of aboriginal women.

She noted that both the Liberals and NDP have promised to launch an inquiry should they form government. And Harper’s end-of-year comments only cement her position that the country needs a change in leadership.

“Today, he is just showing who he is,” she said.