Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: Multiple Remedies Required from Ottawa and Other Governments

By Veronica Strong-Boag, 8 Dec. 2015

Indigenous women have been missing and murdered for many decades. Families and communities have long mourned. It is mainstream concern that is far more recent. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC; founded in 1974), along with numerous other Indigenous women's organizations, has been critical in raising consciousness. More generally, historic and contemporary feminists’ steadfast concern with violence against women and children has also played a role. In modern-day Canada, the murders of Helen Betty Osborne in Le Pas, Manitoba in 1971, 14 women at Montreal’s l’École Polytechnique in 1989, and the 33 victims of BC’s Robert Pickton became increasingly impossible to ignore.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006-2015) nevertheless preferred to label such tragedies "crimes," rather than "sociological" indicators of something badly wrong in the nation he aimed to rule. This sleight of hand was used to justify a law-and-order agenda that fueled paranoia and victim-blaming, while his government built prisons and undermined the social determinants of justice and well-being. Conservative obfuscation persisted even as BC’s provincial inquiry into serial murders confirmed the particular vulnerability of Indigenous girls and women (November 2012), the RCMP estimated 1,181 cases over 30 years (May 2014), the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people highlighted rights violations (May 2014), and the toll continued to mount with well-publicized, vicious assaults on two Manitoba teens—Tina Fontaine and Rinelle Harper—in 2014. In May 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission once again reminded Canadians of the “complex interplay of factors” fuelling crimes against Indigenous women.

In the fall of 2015, charges that the Sûreté de Québec had abused Indigenous women in Val-d’Or and then ignored their complaints, alongside renewed calls to address the toxic nature of the RCMP’s work environment for women, only reaffirmed the failures of the criminal justice system.

Despite the Harper government’s repeated hostility toward evidence-based policy, with respect to issues as wide-ranging as the environment and the long form census, Indigenous activists and their allies have persisted in demands for a national inquiry. They anticipate numerous benefits: more irrefutable proof of longstanding crimes and government failures, opportunities for families and communities to express anger and grief, and the chance for individual and collective redress. Similar hopes also encouraged earlier, more limited investigations of missing and murdered women. Unfortunately, for all the valuable evidence previous studies produced, few practical remedies resulted. British Columbia has been typically slow in implementing recommendations from its extended inquiry: as of November 2015, for example, the dangers of the northern Highway of Tears have not been addressed with the provision of adequate public transportation,' and the Provincial Privacy Commission has charged that the provincial government is "'triple’ deleting" (presumably compromising) emails on the subject. The call for a national investigation by NWAC and other representatives of Indigenous communities should nevertheless be honoured as a significant, albeit only partial, acknowledgement of pervasive and persistent injury and absence of government action.

The new Liberal government has now announced that the inquiry will begin, at the latest, by June of 2016. Pre-inquiry consultations will determine its scope and mandate, and proponents of justice for Indigenous women are urging the federal government to avoid the many mistakes of the Oppal Inquiry in BC. In particular, failure to provide adequate funding to families and community groups at that hearing resulted in a one-sided investigation of police behaviour.

A national investigation should not, however, be the sole federal initiative. More than sufficient evidence already exists to begin immediate redress across a wide range of policy arenas. Justice for Indigenous women is closely linked to overdue need to pay attention to the social determinants of community well-being on and off reserves. A national inquiry into the specifics of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women should occur alongside a broader agenda that tackles infrastructure requirements for Indigenous communities about which there is no need to inquire further: provision of an adequate supply of safe housing and clean drinking water, reliable transportation links to remote communities, and delivery of high level education, health and child welfare services under Indigenous leadership. Off-reserve Indigenous women will benefit from similar attention to systemic failures across Canada (from public transit to daycare) and close listening to variously disadvantaged community members, including homeless, disabled and low-waged people, refugees, and those with care-giving responsibilities.

The ultimate measure of the more diverse Liberal cabinet unveiled on November 4, 2015 will be whether or not it takes wide-ranging action against the multiple failures of good government that contributed to Canada’s heavy toll of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Photo: murray bush—flux photo