By CARRIE LESTER
The author is of Kanien’ke’ha:ka (Mohawk)-Onondaga and British-Canadian settler ancestry.
TORONTO—There is a renewed push for a national inquiry into the disappearances and murders of Indigenous women and girls across Canada. The numbers are ever changing, but the most recent list involves 824 Indigenous women and girls whose murders or disappearances over the past 30 years have been mostly disregarded by police forces.
The population of Indigenous women is about two per cent of Canada’s total population. If two per cent of the total disappeared, that would amount to about 70,000 non-Native women missing or found murdered. In that case, would there be so little interest or compassion?
Several grassroots Indigenous women’s groups, like Sisters in Spirit and No More Stolen Sisters, have been instrumental in doing the work that the police seem reluctant to do. They compiled a database of names collected by word of mouth, newspaper articles, and police reports. Not surprisingly, such groups are suspicious of any inquiry run by the very institution (the colonial settler state) that is complicit in the cultural harm done to a race of people.
To understand why, one need only look at the failed Pickton Inquiry. It was headed by Commissioner Wally Oppal, previously a Supreme Court judge, an Appeals Court judge in British Columbia, and Attorney General for BC, who arrived on the scene with his own shameful baggage. His inquiry was marked by his refusal to hear full evidence, by his exclusion of several Indigenous and allied women’s groups, and by the termination of financial assistance to pay legal fees for the families of the disappeared. Meanwhile, police legal expenses were fully funded by Canadian taxpayers.
As of mid-March 2014, only three of the 65 recommendations from that inquiry were implemented. These include safe travel measures along the dangerous Northern B.C. Highway 16, a.k.a., The Highway of Tears, and funding for 24-hour emergency services to women in the sex trade.
Now one more recommendation has been ticked off: compensation for surviving family members, to the tune of $50,000, to be thinly distributed across 11 of 13 families.
Shawn Brant, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga Territory near Belleville, Ontario, issued an ultimatum in an open letter in early February to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It stated that if there were no action by the government by the end of February, Brant and members of his community would feel compelled to take whatever action might be necessary to convince Harper that an inquiry is mandatory.
Brant assured Harper that actions would spread across the Canadian state. Several road and rail blockades did occur—so far, in Tyendinaga and Toronto. But Harper insists that an inquiry would be a waste of time and money.
Last year James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, came to Canada to dialog with Indigenous peoples. He determined that an inquiry is required. But many Indigenous people believe the inquiry should come from the grassroots women’s groups already on the ground, who are compiling the data, and not from the colonial state.
So, besides an inquiry, what can be done? For starters, Canada needs “a national DNA database for missing persons and unidentified human remains,” says Maryanne Pearce, a federal government worker who has spent the past seven years compiling data on missing and murdered women in Canada.
Police forces should be compelled to share information. Better training in the handling of missing persons’ cases is needed, as is sensitivity training with regard to dealing with all people, regardless of background, but especially in appreciation of the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada.