Justice for Canada’s indigenous women
The remedy cannot simply be an apology or an official acknowledgement that these women have been wronged.
Each number has a name, a family, a life story and, tragically, an unresolved ending.
One of those stories belongs to Danita Faith BigEagle (PDF). The youngest of six children, Danita was born in Arcola, a tiny town known as the “city of angels” that sits in the southeast corner of the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan.
Like her ancestors, Danita is part of the Ocean Man First Nation, just one among the countless indigenous communities that was a fixture on the prairie long before European settlers arrived and remains an essential part of the Canadian mosaic.
On February 14, 2007, the 32-year-old mother of two, Danita was reported missing after she didn’t show up for a visit to her mother who was “caretaker” to her young son and daughter while she got help for drug and alcohol addiction. Her whereabouts and fate are unknown.
Sadly, Danita’s story is far from unique. In 2014, Canada’s national police first revealed that between 1980 and 2012, 1,017 Aboriginal women and girls were murdered across the country and another 164 were missing. These appalling figures continue to climb.
The disappearance of Danita Faith BigEagle and all the other murdered and vanished Aboriginal mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives is, undeniably, Canada’s shame.
Despite the pleas of surviving family, in too many cases the missing and murdered women and girls have never been found, and the perpetrators have never been pursued, discovered or prosecuted.
Instead, for decades, the disappearance of indigenous women and girls has been met by political indifference, police negligence and a collective shrug by too many Canadians who have seemed content to do and demand nothing in the face of such unfathomable suffering and loss.
But the conscience of Canada and Canadians may be in for a sharp reckoning following the Liberal government’s decision earlier this month to launch a commission of inquiry to address belatedly what has been appropriately described by Amnesty International as a “national human rights crisis” (PDF).
Whatever the inquiry's ultimate recommendations, the institutional efforts to finally find the missing women and girls must be redoubled and the perpetrators must be apprehended.
Certainly the inquiry, which is scheduled to begin its difficult work on September 1, will sorely test, if not erode, Canada’s international reputation as a tolerant nation that celebrates its diversity and fidelity to justice at home and abroad.
The horrible history of these murdered and missing women and girls and their grieving families will, no doubt, be on graphic and distressing display day after day at the inquiry.
As such, the unvarnished truth – buried by design by so many – will shatter any illusion about how the rest of Canada has treated its First Nations.
Perhaps more profoundly, Canada and Canadians will be obliged to confront, yet again, the uncomfortable fact that justice has been denied to scores of indigenous women, girls and their families.
The remnants of myopia
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deserves credit for convening the inquiry and appointing Marion Buller, the first female First Nations judge in British Columbia, to head up the five-person commission.
A succession of other Liberal and Conservative prime ministers, however, blithely allowed this human rights “crisis” not only to fester like an untreated national wound, but to mushroom in size and scope without holding anyone in any position of authority to account.
Indeed, Trudeau’s predecessor, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, repeatedly rebuffed persistent calls by the families and others to establish an inquiry, once even suggesting dismissively that an inquiry wasn’t “really high on [his government’s] radar.”
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Harper argued that the response to Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women and girls had been “studied to death” and, in any event, it was up to the police to find out what happened and why, not the government.
Make no mistake, while Harper may be gone, the exasperation he expressed about the attention to the plight of these women and girls continues, regrettably, to be shared by many Canadians who are convinced that too much time, money and resources have already been spent trying to uncover the “root causes” of the violence against indigenous women.
The corollary to this myopia is, of course, a fallacious belief that these women and girls were largely the architects of their own misfortune. Harper gave crass, reactionary voice to the “it’s time to move on” sentiment that is echoed by much of the corporate media today.
Justice shall be served
The inquiry will have to confront this ugly, persistent “blame the victim” mentality, too. In doing so, it will be compelled to pick away methodically at the scab of simmering intolerance and racism endemic in Canada and other so-called inclusive Western societies.
This time, the remedy cannot simply be an apology or an official acknowledgement that these women, girls and their surviving loved ones have been wronged.
Whatever the inquiry’s ultimate recommendations, the institutional efforts to finally find the missing women and girls must be redoubled and the perpetrators must – if possible – be apprehended.
Only then, will Canadians be able to right, in part, the injustice visited upon their indigenous neighbours for generations.
In the end, the world will learn soon enough whether Canada and Canadians will fulfil that solemn duty and responsibility or shrink from it.
Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning investigative reporter and journalism instructor.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.