The Case for a National Inquiry into Canada’s Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women

A few short years ago mine was among the voices calling for a national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women. There was a pressing need for statistical and anecdotal evidence to be gathered which would paint the picture of what was seemingly self-evident about what was happening and provoke consideration of actionable solutions.

Don Hutchinson

Don Hutchinson

In 1996 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued a detailed report, which considered historic and systemic issues and proposed solutions (some workable, some not) to address them. It was followed by a response from the Chretien government in 1998 and 2 follow-up reports from the government in 1999 and 2000. Most Canadians are aware that little action was taken after 2000 until the, as it turned out, ill-timed negotiation of the Kelowna Accord (which required Parliamentary approval) approved by Prime Minister Paul Martin, who had a minority government and was heading into an election.

Subsequent action to address historic and systemic issues by Prime Minister Harper’s government have included issuing Canada’s first official apology to Canada’s aboriginal peoples, implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and initiatives on education and property rights that have not met with sufficient support within the aboriginal community. Mr. Harper has also stated the intent to develop economic and employment opportunities for aboriginal Canadians that fit with 21st century employment needs in the geographic regions surrounding aboriginal communities.

There remains work to be done as, without question, there remain historic and systemic issues that contribute to the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. Much in this regard is also revealed in reports and statistics available from Status of Women Canada and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

Earlier this year, the RCMP issued its report, “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Review.”

According to the RCMP’s statistical analysis, the solve rate for murdered aboriginal women is 88% as compared with 90% for non-aboriginal women; virtually identical. They also report variances as murdered aboriginal women are:

• 3 times more likely than similarly victimized non-aboriginal women to have consumed intoxicants prior to a fatal incident (63% versus 20%),
• more than 3 times as likely to have a criminal record (44% versus 13%).

The murderers in almost all cases are spouses, lovers, family members or “acquaintances.” (As the Native Women’s Association of Canada affirms over 80% of the killers fit this category, however aboriginal women are still nearly 3 times more likely to be murdered by strangers, 16.5%, as non-aboriginal women, 6%.) The RCMP reports that of the known killers of aboriginal women:

• 62% had a pre-existing relationship with the victim that included a history of family violence (the number is 43% for non-aboriginal victims),
• 44% were drunk or high (as compared with 15% for non-aboriginal victims).

Killers of aboriginal women were also twice as likely (53% versus 27%) as killers of non-aboriginal women to have a prior criminal conviction for a violent offence.

The RCMP notes in its next steps as using their analysis to:

• enhance efforts on unresolved cases, including revisions to best efforts in both investigating, maintaining contact with families and implementing a national risk management tool
• focus prevention efforts, including identifying communities and individuals with the highest risk factors and introducing new crime prevention measures in conjunction with other police forces and government agencies
• increase public awareness, particularly through the Family Violence Initiative
• take a number of steps that will strengthen the available data and keep it at the forefront of their policing efforts

The highest number of unsolved missing or murdered aboriginal women cases are in the province of British Columbia. B.C. had its own Missing Women Commission of Inquiry which issued its report in 2012.

In its report, titled “Forsaken,” the B.C. Missing Women Commission of Inquiry includes substantial comment on the disproportionate number of missing aboriginal women. The Commission was chaired by Wally Oppal, a former B.C. Court of Appeal judge and former B.C. Attorney General. The report offers anecdotal stories that align with the statistics presented by the RCMP.

The B.C. report identifies a number of proposals, with particular attention to aboriginal peoples as part of identified at risk populations, including to:

• make police and outreach workers more aware of disappearances and criminal victimization among Vancouver’s at-risk populations and more sensitive to those communities
• revise prosecution guidelines for instances of domestic violence in at-risk populations
• provide increased safety for identified at-risk populations
• enhance police investigations and communications in cases of missing women

However, like the RCMP statistics the B.C. conclusions are faced with the reality that even the best funded and best prepared police forces and social work agencies can do little when encountering emotionally damaged individuals – perhaps influenced by historic and systemic issues as well as contemporary personal circumstance – entwined in relationships with men who are violent and/or substance addicted.

Several programs for inter-departmental and inter-jurisdictional cooperation have been developed with other recent initiatives that address broader concerns and also impact the aboriginal community, such as the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking.

There is much to mine from the reports already in hand. There are initiatives already in place that address relevant action, both preventive and responsive. There may, in 2014, be little to add by spending millions on a new national enquiry – which would include expected disagreements over what should be the terms of reference, who should be the commissioners, and what should be the budget (for travel, witness attendance, lawyers and legal advisors, etc.) even before the first hearing is held.

I can appreciate Prime Minister Harper’s perspective, because the landscape of study and the legal tools to address the issue have changed between 2012 and 2014; softening my own position.

Still, there may be value in consolidating what’s out there and hearing from affected families, friends, police forces and perhaps even the confessed killers.

As the premiers and territorial leaders are standing together with aboriginal leaders in making the demand for a national inquiry, perhaps they would be willing to also stand together in the commitment to fund the proposal, provide the support services that will be required (at least on a province by province basis for hearings), provide lists of both recommendations for terms of reference and commissioners, and outline what they hope to accomplish that has not already been recently studied, documented and engaged for action. That would make for a more persuasive case to cover ground that in 2014 seems substantially to have been addressed.

The proposal arising out of this week’s meeting of premiers to have a national roundtable between relevant provincial, territorial and federal departments with aboriginal leaders to review what is already known and actionable seems even more reasonable; and may be more productive more quickly.

Whatever the outcome, let’s hope it won’t facilitate delay of necessary action on prevention, investigation and prosecution that has already been set out in recommendations and legislation.