In the shadow of young Tina Fontaine’s murder Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has just unveiled a $25-million, five-year spending plan to help curb violence against aboriginal women and girls. The Conservatives no doubt hope it will inoculate them against criticism that they have neglected this issue.
But as the reaction in Parliament showed, opposition MPs regard it as little more than tokenism, given the scale of the problem. Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett dismissed it as “political smoke and mirrors,” and New Democrat Niki Ashton renewed her party’s call for a national inquiry.
Certainly, Canada needs such an inquiry to shine a spotlight not only on the crimes but also on the complex social factors that leave aboriginal women at far greater risk of being victimized, murdered, going missing, being assaulted, and facing shorter life spans. Premier Kathleen Wynne and her fellow premiers see the need, as do First Nations leaders and the federal opposition parties.
Despite Ottawa’s $8.4-billion spending this year on First Nations affairs, many of the 1.4 million people and their 600 communities “still lack what most other Canadians take for granted,” as former auditor-general Sheila Fraser rightly pointed out a few years ago. It is a national disgrace.
Violence against women can’t easily be separated from a larger tangle of issues: Stalled land claims and unmet treaty obligations, a scarcity of jobs, a chronic lack of decent housing and clean water, underfunded schooling, communities traumatized by residential schools and substance abuse, and a justice system that puts too many behind bars. The Harper government also reneged on the $5-billion Kelowna Accord to create native jobs and raise living standards. And it has imposed top-down legislation that affects resource development, property rights and band spending.
No doubt Ottawa’s $5 million a year will help at the margins. Still, it is hardly ambitious. It extends a program set up in 2010, and will fund community safety plans, raise awareness about intergenerational cycles of abuse and violence, sensitize men and boys, and offer some help to victims. It is an element of Ottawa’s $200-million pledge to create more shelters for women at risk, prevent family violence and set up a DNA-based index of missing persons. But much more can and must be done.
The problems go deep, and the Tories have been slow to acknowledge and address them. An inquiry could help chart a better course.