After years of the former federal Conservative government dismissing missing and murdered indigenous women, our country’s national epidemic, as an enforcement issue, there is a groundswell of optimism about the new Liberal prime minister’s pledge to call a national inquiry. The anticipation is palpable and widespread.
How governments treat their most vulnerable citizens is telling in the way they are measured. Think of Syria, where civil war has forced millions from their homes or Russia, where exhibiting homosexual behavior will get you jailed; or worse still, India, where in rural villages it is still possible for women to be sentenced to gang-rape for crimes committed by male family members.
Thankfully life is much better in Canada, for most of us. A stark contrast remains along racial lines between how your life is going to be socio-economically and, tragically, how likely you are to disappear or die.
Indigenous Canadians represent about 4.3 per cent of the country’s population but account for more than 23 per cent of those incarcerated. They also account for 14 per cent of murders among women and 17 per cent of deaths at the hands of others among men. Another shocking statistic is that 70 per cent of murdered indigenous women die at the hand of their partner or spouse – a major reason that women’s shelters in the NWT are over-flowing.
On Nov. 11, while many people in the NWT were taking part in Remembrance Day ceremonies, May Elanik, an indigenous woman and mother of four girls, aged four to 13, was found beaten and unconscious along a snowmobile trail in Aklavik, a hamlet of less than 650 people 50 kilometres west of Inuvik.
Medevaced to Edmonton for treatment, she never regained consciousness. The investigation into her death has become yet another tragic homicide investigation into the death of an indigenous Canadian woman.
A study by University of British Columbia political science professor Adam Jones found that between 1980 and 2012, as many as 2,500 aboriginal people were murdered: 1,750 males and 745 females. Indigenous men have been killed at more than twice the rate of indigenous women, and more disappear as well. That fact must be addressed in the new federal inquiry. The terrible problem facing our country is not only missing and murdered indigenous women, it is about violence that too often befalls all indigenous Canadians. That must be addressed in an encompassing way.
Professor Jones has suggested what is urgently needed is a First Nations Anti-Violence Initiative which would address topics including:
- The structural violence of poverty, discrimination and dispossession from ancestral territories;
- Intergenerational trauma resulting from residential schools;
- Suicide and homicide epidemics within Indigenous populations;
- White/European racism;
That information is common knowledge, but the devil is very much in the details. Obviously those findings, or some version of them, must be derived from the national inquiry, but Jones has given us insight into what will shape the eventual verdicts and solutions.
The problems facing indigenous women and men are obviously tied intrinsically, but they are at the same time different for indigenous women than for men. It is difficult to make the case for a somehow gender-neutral inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous people in the wake of such horrific crimes, but the numbers do not lie.
Two separate and distinct approaches to missing and murdered Indigenous people are required. One component is needed on women and girls that acknowledges both the systemic social issues of racism and poverty that renders them vulnerable and too often victims of violence or murder, as well as the frequency of domestic violence in their lives; then another on indigenous men and boys focused on their disproportionate representation in prisons as well as their too often being victims of violent acts and murder. It is an extremely complex issue and it needs a complex and thorough approach.
Jones’ findings are evidence-based and should be considered by the Trudeau Liberals as they fulfill their election pledge to launch a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. They should broaden the scope of it to include missing and murdered men and the two separate and distinct but inter-related pathways of violence that impact each gender.
This will be the question of our generation. It will be a key means by which the Liberal government, with the luxury of a four year mandate, defines itself. It will also determine how Canada will appear to and be judged by the rest of the world.