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Seeking justice for Canada's murdered women

Hundreds of aboriginal women have been murdered or are missing, prompting calls for a national public inquiry.

Last updated: 07 Mar 2014 12:37
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Many indigenous women have disappeared along British Columbia's 'Highway of Tears' [CC/Flickr/User: Izithombe]

Buried under more than a foot of freshly fallen snow, the frozen body of Loretta Saunders, a pregnant Inuit student from the eastern Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, was found by police last week.  

The 26-year-old - who was reportedly writing her thesis on missing and murdered aboriginal women - herself became one of the hundreds of indigenous Canadian women targeted in recent years. Several high-profile cases, including the grisly Robert Pickton murders in British Columbia and a string of disappearances along the province's so-called Highway of Tears, have focused public attention on the issue and spurred federal political intervention.  

Last winter, the House of Commons established a special committee to probe the causes of violence against indigenous Canadian women and to seek solutions. After hearing from dozens of witnesses over the course of a year, the committee wrapped up last month, with a final report expected by the end of this week. 

Concrete solutions to end the violence, however, appear distant amid ongoing political bickering. While the opposition Liberal and New Democratic parties have joined native organisations in calling for a national public inquiry into the matter, the ruling Conservative government has resisted such a move. Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, who vice-chaired the committee, said she expects the Conservatives will use their majority to block any recommendation for a public inquiry in the report. 

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"I have been very disappointed at the committee's lack of flexibility and the linear approach to our hearings," Bennett told Al Jazeera, noting that the committee failed to examine all relevant evidence, potentially harming its ability to develop the most effective recommendations.

"I believe that only a national public inquiry would have the scope and resources necessary to identify the root causes of this ongoing tragedy, provide justice for the victims and true healing for their loved ones." 

With the 2015 federal vote fast approaching, Bennett has promised to turn this into an election issue, vowing that a Liberal government would both launch an inquiry and create a "national action plan" to tackle violence against native women. The Conservative chair of the committee, MP Stella Ambler, did not respond to Al Jazeera's multiple requests for comment.  

Violence 'disproportionately high'

More than 600 aboriginal women have been killed or gone missing over the past several decades, according to data from the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC). Most of the documented cases occurred between 2000 and 2010, at which point the federal government ceased funding the database. 

NWAC has called the number "disproportionately high", noting that in the 2000s, aboriginal women comprised just three percent of the country's female population but represented 10 percent of all female homicides. Last month, NWAC gathered more than 23,000 signatures on a petition urging the federal government to launch a public inquiry into the matter. "This is a national tragedy that can no longer be ignored," NWAC President Michèle Audette said in a statement. 

Statistics presented to the House of Commons committee revealed that aboriginal women in Canada experience rates of violence more than three times that of non-aboriginal women, and young aboriginal women are five times more likely to die of violence. The causes are wide and diverse, from the legacy of residential schools, to a lack of shelter space, to "inherent racism" among the media and public, Bennett said. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which gave testimony at the committee, has been investigating violence against native women since the summer of 2012, including conducting interviews with dozens of women and girls about their experiences with the Canadian justice system. The results were disturbing, lead researcher Meghan Rhoad said in an interview with Al Jazeera. 

"Indigenous women and girls are not only under-protected by the police, but some have experienced outright police abuse," Rhoad said, noting that many indigenous women reported having little faith that the same police forces that mistreated them in the past could offer them protection in the broader community. Adding to the mistrust, a comprehensive 2012 report into police handling of the Pickton case - the British Columbia serial killer who mostly targeted aboriginal sex-trade workers - cited systemic bias in the investigation. 

HRW, which is among the voices calling for a public inquiry into violence against native women, believes the committee's final report should also recommend better police accountability and complaint mechanisms, Rhoad said. 

'Great concern' 

For its part, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) says the prevalence of violence against aboriginal women is an issue of "great concern" to the national police force. 

"The RCMP continues to seek out additional information in regards to potential risk factors and root causes, which will allow us to develop new prevention, intervention and enforcement initiatives," spokesperson Laurence Trottier told Al Jazeera, adding that the RCMP participates in a variety of localised task forces dedicated to actively reviewing files of missing women. 

There have been so many reports that came out already about violence against women… [but] nobody's doing anything about it.

- Bridget Tolley, co-founder of Families of Sisters in Spirit

Al Jazeera sent the federal government a list of questions about the upcoming report and what Canada must do to tackle the broader problem of violence against native women. The questions were twice redirected, first by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, and then by Justice Canada, which sent them to Status of Women Canada (SWC). A spokesperson for SWC sent a brief response that did not address the question of an inquiry, but highlighted Ottawa's recent CAD$25m ($22.5m) commitment "to directly address the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women" through law enforcement and the creation of a national DNA-based missing person's index. 

"We would like to recognise the hard work and diligence of the members and witnesses of the [committee]," added Barbara Mottram, a spokesperson for the Minister of Labour and Status of Women. "We look forward to reviewing and responding to their report." 

Families of the victims, meanwhile, say they have become increasingly frustrated by Canada's lack of substantive action. Commissions, studies and reports have repeatedly highlighted the severity of the problem, but little has been offered in the way of genuine solutions, said Bridget Tolley, the co-founder of Families of Sisters in Spirit, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit organisation led by relatives of missing and murdered indigenous women. Tolley's own mother died in 2001 after being struck by a police cruiser on a native reservation in Quebec. 

"There have been so many reports that came out already about violence against women… We know the causes and we know what's happening, [but] nobody's doing anything about it," Tolley told Al Jazeera, noting the upcoming committee report would likely reiterate the same troubling sagas, statistics and recommendations. She has grown weary of the cycle. 

"When it comes to missing and murdered women, the families want to find their missing; they want our cases that are unsolved solved… We just want to look for justice," Tolley said. "I want my mother to have an independent investigation into her death, to see the wrongs. If we don't fix the wrongs, how the heck are we supposed to move forward?"

Follow Megan O'Toole on Twitter: @Megan_OToole

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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