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The Toronto Star

Growing Number of Aboriginal Women in Canada Ask: 'Am I Next?'

A sign at the 10th Annual Strawberry Ceremony in Toronto. (Photo: @Connie_Walker/Twitter)

Following the first-ever national roundtable on missing and murdered indigenous women, it is with a heavy heart that I am writing about this ongoing tragedy — a national epidemic of violence that persists in devastating more families each year, prompting a growing number of aboriginal women to ask: “Am I next?”

According to the RCMP, there have been about 1,200 victims, on and off reserves, between 1980 and 2012. A stark reality of poverty, unemployment and violence can be summarized in one disturbing fact: aboriginal women are five times more likely to be murdered than non-aboriginal ones!

Action must be taken on several fronts: justice, support, protection and prevention. It must be championed at the community, municipal, provincial and federal levels.

While the renewed calls by premiers for a public inquiry are strong indicators of their commitment, the federal government has been sending half-hearted signals. It speaks about action, but its so-called plan is nothing more than a laundry list of existing piecemeal initiatives — many of them a mere continuation of inadequate efforts not even specific to aboriginal women.

More troubling is the prime minister’s and his ministers’ view of this tragedy. They are not only dismissing calls for a public inquiry, but deny that this is a social phenomenon. For them, it is rather a series of isolated, family-based crimes that are best addressed through police investigations.

This approach is truly disturbing.

  • Why do they persist in making the issue solely a First Nations one and in believing that the only valid solutions should focus on changing behaviours of aboriginal men on reserves?
  • Who believes there is no correlation between the crisis and generalized gender- and race-based discrimination, continued impoverishment or economic marginalization?
  • Rather than focusing on police investigations, shouldn’t we be proactive and do something before people go missing?
  • If everything is known about the issue, why is it continuing and why are 20 per cent of the cases still unsolved? We need to understand how to bring the perpetrators to justice, provide closure to the families and protect women from criminals walking free in their communities.

In a strongly worded report released this month, the UN expert Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women concluded that Canada was responsible for a “grave violation” of human rights due to its “protracted failure” to take sufficient action to stop violence against indigenous women and girls.

As a direct result of this government’s inaction, we are now dealing with frustrated aboriginal communities that feel ignored. And, more importantly, we are no closer to ensuring that aboriginal women are treated the same as any other Canadian woman when it comes to being protected against violent crimes.

Is another one-day roundtable in 2016 really the solution to this horrific tragedy? I hope not.

The government needs to do much more. The conditions for a larger national conversation must be created to send a strong signal to aboriginal women that they are not “invisible.” A national inquiry would provide an opportunity for a “foundational” look at the issue and form the basis for co-ordinated national action. Information, education and action need to go hand in hand to prevent this human crisis from persisting.

There is no alternative. Ignoring the calls of experts, organizations and citizens pleading for such conversation is not only disrespectful but indicates — not just to aboriginal communities, but to all Canadians — that we are indeed indifferent as to “who is next?”

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Sandra Lovelace Nicholas

Sandra Lovelace Nicholas is a Maliseet from the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick who was appointed to the Senate in 2005.

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