Three Issues a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Must Address

Lara Koerner Yeo (2L)

Ottawa’s decision to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is a crucial step in addressing the situation of violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls in Canada today; one that will hopefully move the federal government, provinces, territories, and Indigenous nations into negotiations on a comprehensive, cross-jurisdiction national action plan.

Several important issues must be addressed if the inquiry is to be able to investigate the full scope of the crisis: the human rights framework; what national means in the context of this inquiry; and Indigenous women’s leadership and the capacity for non-Indigenous Canadians to engage in the inquiry process.

THE HUMAN RIGHTS FRAMEWORK

In 2015, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW or “the Committee”) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released groundbreaking reports on the situation of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. CEDAW found Canada to be in violation of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women. The IACHR report, similarly, found that Canada is legally required to improve its response to the violence, pursuant to its obligations under the Charter of the Organization of American States and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

The reports illustrate how the impairment of Indigenous women’s economic and social rights makes them vulnerable to violations of basic civil and political rights, such as the right to life and security of person. Both reports also make findings on the root causes of the systemic discrimination perpetuating Indigenous women’s and girls’ disproportionately high vulnerability to violence in Canada. For example, Canada’s colonial history, including the dispossession of Indigenous lands, the legacy of residential schools, on-going sex-discrimination in the Indian Act, and women’s and girls’ socio-economic marginalization, are found to be root causes of violence that must be addressed.

The reports underscore the high rates of violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls. While data on the full scope of the issue is lacking, publicly available data indicates that Indigenous women and girls are three times more likely to be subjected to violent victimization than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

RCMP statistics on homicide victimization of Aboriginal women compared to non-Aboriginal women (source: RCMP Revised Homicide Survey Dataset)

RCMP statistics on homicide victimization of Aboriginal women compared to non-Aboriginal women (source: RCMP Revised Homicide Survey Dataset)

These reports provide a human rights framework from which a national inquiry can, and must, build. The reports provide both a blueprint for how the violence can be understood in universal human rights terms and a fundamental starting place for the national inquiry.

WHAT NATIONAL ACTUALLY MEANS

Indigenous advocates and their allies have persistently called for a national inquiry. Advocates have been clear in framing the inquiry as national in scope, not only federal in scope, precisely because a federal inquiry that is confined to matters under federal jurisdiction, lacking cooperation agreements with the provinces and territories, would miss the multi-jurisdictional nuance of the systemic violence.

Government and policing failures are multifaceted across federal, provincial, and territorial jurisdictions. The federal, provincial and territorial response to the issue thus far has been piecemeal and overly siloed. This falls drastically short of a coordinated law, policy and programmatic response by Canadian governments and police forces to the crisis of violence and its underlying causes—the type of response that has been recommended to Canada by expert human rights bodies time and again.

A national inquiry must involve federal cooperation with provincial and territorial governments, as well as investigation into police forces and oversight bodies across Canadian jurisdictions. The inquiry, a creature of the federal Inquiries Act, will have the authority to investigate RCMP and civilian oversight of the RCMP; however, it will need to seek the cooperation of the provinces and territories to review provincial, municipal and auxiliary police forces.

If the inquiry is to come close to addressing the root causes of the violence and the particular role of police, as perpetrators and law enforcers, it must have the provinces and territories on side. Anything less would almost certainly lead to an ineffective outcome.

INDIGENOUS WOMEN’S LEADERSHIP AND ENGAGING NON-INDIGENOUS CANADIANS

The national inquiry should be led by Indigenous women. Indigenous women and girls must always remain at the center of the inquiry. The focus on Indigenous women should be supported by a public education campaign that engages non-Indigenous Canadians and indicates how this inquiry is relevant to them. Approximately 95% of Canadians do not identify as Indigenous. Many Canadians will likely, if they haven’t already, learn about the inquiry and quickly decide that it doesn’t impact or implicate them in any real, substantial way. The inquiry must challenge this notion.

Public inquiries have an important social function. This function includes engaging the public beyond the affected group and creating ways for the general public to identify with and acknowledge the harm done unto the affected group. A public education and media campaign serves this important function. It can impress upon non-Indigenous Canadians their particular role and responsibilities, as settler people, in the inquiry process. The inquiry should challenge non-Indigenous Canadians to check their assumptions, stereotypes, and actions that perpetuate, directly or indirectly, the very social, economic, and political conditions that have rendered Indigenous women so susceptible to violence.

An inquiry that challenges non-Indigenous Canadians to think about their role and responsibilities will help foster social accountability and political will. Cultivating this sense of accountability will encourage non-Indigenous Canadians to act on the inquiry’s recommendations in reconciliation with Indigenous peoples—this is something we should all want.

The long-term goal is the implementation of a coordinated national action plan that builds on the findings and recommendations of the inquiry. We cannot lose sight of this goal as we set out to ensure the inquiry itself is equipped to get us there.

Lara currently works with the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action and was a research assistant in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

United Nations and Inter-American Commission representatives at the Symposium, "Planning for Change: Towards a National Inquiry and An Effective National Action Plan", Ottawa, January 30-31, 2016. Left to right: UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Dubravka Šimonović; UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha; UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz; Chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Rapporteur for Canada, James Cavallaro; and Vice-Chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Barbara Bailey (absent: Member of the CEDAW Committee and Chair of the Working Group on Follow-up to Inquiries, Ruth Halperin-Kaddari). (Photo Credit: Lara Koerner Yeo)

United Nations and Inter-American Commission representatives at the Symposium, “Planning for Change: Towards a National Inquiry and An Effective National Action Plan”, Ottawa, January 30-31, 2016. Left to right: UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Dubravka Šimonović; UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha; UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz; Chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Rapporteur for Canada, James Cavallaro; and Vice-Chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Barbara Bailey (absent: Member of the CEDAW Committee and Chair of the Working Group on Follow-up to Inquiries, Ruth Halperin-Kaddari). (Photo Credit: Lara Koerner Yeo)