A national shame: Canada’s missing women need us – now

Last week, while aboriginal demonstrators were marching outside the Centre Block, New Democratic MP Niki Ashton rose in the Commons and asked the government — again — to convene a national inquiry to provide answers and justice for the families of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Last week, while aboriginal demonstrators were marching outside the Centre Block, New Democratic MP Niki Ashton rose in the Commons and asked the government — again — to convene a national inquiry to provide answers and justice for the families of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

What she got from the country’s justice minister, Peter MacKay, was a patronizing smack down.

“What we do not need is haughty, condescending questions from the Opposition,” said MacKay, before lapsing into the familiar rote answer about more “actual, concrete, substantive, practical action” to protect aboriginal women.

The government has long resisted an inquiry, saying another analysis is not needed. What is needed, we are told, is action.

That argument would be much more palatable if this government was actually doing something substantive, rather than cosmetic.

It would be far more palatable if this government could explain why an inquiry into how this has happened somehow precludes immediate action. Now.

An inquiry is not an excuse for inaction in the here and now.

It would be far more palatable if a law-and-order government, which preaches the rights of victims, could explain why it is so reluctant to give families who lost loved ones the tiny bit of closure that could come from speaking publicly if they felt their concerns were not given priority by law enforcement agencies.

Yes, an inquiry would be costly and the range of issues at play here mean the scope could be unwieldy. An inquiry would embarrass us all — successive governments, local police forces and the RCMP, and non-aboriginals in this country.

Maybe we need that.

This government, and indeed this country, needs a jolt to some type of action to deal with a national shame that is depriving families of justice and staining this country’s reputation worldwide.

Friday, the RCMP gave us that jolt, putting numbers — not names — to the epidemic of violence against aboriginal women in this country.

The numbers were largely known, the scale of the problem acknowledged for years, but somehow the numbers still stop you in your tracks.

There were 1,181 murdered or missing women in this country over the period studied, 1980-2012.

Some 120 homicides remain unsolved and another 105 aboriginal women were officially missing on the day this snapshot was taken, Nov. 4, 2013.

Fifty-five per cent of all murders during that time period in Saskatchewan were aboriginal women. In Manitoba, the figure is 49 per cent.

Female aboriginals comprise 4.3 per cent of the population. On that November day, they represented 11 per cent of all women reported missing.

Over the period studied, 16 per cent of the murder victims in this country were aboriginal females — four times their representation in the population.

Aboriginal women accounted for eight per cent of female homicide victims in 1984, but 23 per cent — nearly one in four of all murders of Canadian women — in 2012. The RCMP said much of that jump is because of a decline in female homicides generally.

Female aboriginals are twice as likely to be beaten to death than non-aboriginal homicide victims.

Those who kill aboriginal females were more likely to be out of work, more likely to be on social assistance or disability insurance, far more likely (71 per cent) to be high at the time of the crime.

Importantly, the solve rate for murders of women both aboriginal and non-aboriginal is almost identical, close to 90 per cent, but the rates plummet for both, around 60 to 65 per cent, if they are in the sex trade.

The RCMP report is groundbreaking but it raises age-old problems that have been studied before without improvement — poverty, lack of job opportunities, drug and alcohol abuse.

That’s what makes an inquiry so daunting. It is true that more analysis will not solve the problem. But as a sign of good faith with a First Nations whose relationship with the Stephen Harper government is broken, the Conservatives must provide some type of forum for answers.

The number of missing aboriginal women in Canada approaches the number of Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, an atrocity that is receiving a global spotlight, commands huge media attention in Canada and sparked an emergency debate in the House of Commons.

While international concern for the Nigerian girls is laudable, it is a mystery why the Conservative government and the Canadian media essentially ignore an atrocity on a similar scale happening right in their own country.

We went to Afghanistan ostensibly to help young girls and women. We are offering help to find girls in Nigeria. But on our own streets, we look the other way.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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