The real story of what happened to Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women lies between the lines of the 22-page “operational review” released by the RCMP last week.
The numbers alone were shocking. The scope of the tragedy — 1,181 cases — was larger than anyone expected. Previous estimates by the Native Women’s Association of Canada put the number of victims at 668. The stereotypes that have long prevailed — most of these women were prostitutes who put themselves in harm’s way — turned out to be wrong. Only 12 worked in the sex trade.
But what was most troubling was what police omitted, what they implied and what they assumed. They emphasized, for example, that the “solve rate” for homicides involving aboriginal women between 1980 and 2012 was 88 per cent, compared to 89 per cent for all female homicides, suggesting that this puts to rest the notion the RCMP did not take crimes against aboriginal women seriously. What they didn’t mention was that the distraught relatives who sought help to find their missing daughters, sisters, mothers and aunts didn’t want their murders solved; they wanted them prevented.
What they didn’t address was the allegation by families that RCMP officers downplayed the plight of their missing loved ones, labelling them runaways or drug addicts.
What they didn’t explain was why so many aboriginal women’s lives ended on the Highway of Tears, in decrepit rooming houses or under bridges.
To be fair to the RCMP this issue goes far beyond the purview of the police. A parliamentary committee that recently studied the epidemic of violence against indigenous women concluded it was rooted in the poverty, isolation, substandard housing, underfunded schools and lack of jobs in many aboriginal communities.
Both opposition parties filed reports urging the government to call a national public inquiry. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt brushed off their entreaties, insisting his department was taking action to combat crime in aboriginal communities.
He was following a well-worn path. For decades Liberal and Conservative ministers have turned a blind — or jaundiced — eye on the tangle of socio-economic woes festering in aboriginal communities, commissioned studies, put forward bills that defied the wishes and ignored the rights of First Nations, blamed aboriginal leaders for the problem, poured welfare into reserves or thrown up their hands helplessly.
In light of this record — and his government’s eight-year role in it — it is not surprising that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is resisting calls for a public inquiry. A full-fledged investigation would lay bare his government’s failures and put the onus on him to tackle a long history of neglect, condescension and stinginess.
But the demand for a comprehensive probe is swelling. The Mounties made it clear last week that a wider examination of the issue is needed. “The reality is that there are difficult social and economic circumstances that need to be discussed as we move forward,” said Superintendent Tyler Bates, director of national aboriginal policing for the RCMP.
The opposition parties aren’t letting up. “Everyone except the government agrees there is a crisis,” Mylène Freeman, chair of the NDP women’s caucus, told Parliament last week. “Will the government finally agree to a national public inquiry?”
The United Nations added its voice to the chorus this month. James Anaya, UN special rapporteur on indigenous rights called on Ottawa to “undertake a comprehensive, nation-wide inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal woman and girls, organized in consultation with indigenous peoples.”
Aboriginal groups are organizing vigils, demonstrations and days of action.
The RCMP’s statistical roundup was welcome and enlightening. But as deputy commissioner Janice Armstrong said, the report was “an excellent first step.” The next step is to fill in what the police left out; trace the path that led these women to their untimely deaths; and provide their families — and Canadians who care — with a hearing and an opportunity to be part of the solution.