By Craig Benjamin and Jackie Hansen
“What we do not need now is to stop and talk and study. We need more action.” - Federal Justice Minister Peter McKay, March 2014.
Let’s be clear: we all want action to end violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
But we don’t need just any action. We need action that can actually stop the violence tearing First Nations, Inuit and Metis women and girls from their families. We need action that is coordinated and properly-resourced. And we need action that is based on accurate information and a clear understanding of the true extent and nature of the threats faced based by Indigenous women and girls.
Unfortunately, that is not the kind of action that the federal government is delivering.
After years and years of Indigenous women's organizations demanding action, the RCMP has just carried out its first systematic attempt to determine the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. A backgrounder just released on the RCMP website states that more than 1000 Indigenous women were murdered in Canada between 1980 and 2012. This represents 16 percent of all women murdered during this time, even though Aboriginal women make up around 4 percent of the population.
The RCMP numbers are consistent with the findings of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, which has said that violence against Indigenous women and girls is much more prevalent than the 882 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women that it was previously able to independently document.
Critically, however, the new figures released by the RCMP are almost certainly only part of the picture – the true scale of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls may be much higher than even these numbers suggest.
The RCMP says its findings are based on collaboration with Statistics Canada and more than 300 different police jurisdictions. However, we already know from Statistics Canada that police often fail to record whether or not the victims of violent crime are Indigenous. In 2009, for example, police recorded the Indigenous identity of the majority of homicide victims as "unknown".
Furthermore, because there is no systematic guidance for how police should record Aboriginal identity, Aboriginal victims of crime may be inaccurately recorded as non-Aboriginal. In addition, there are serious, persistent concerns that suspicious deaths of Aboriginal women and girls are all too often explained away as accidents without first being sufficiently investigated.
More will be known about how the RCMP figures were determined when the RCMP releases its full report later this month. In the meantime, the most pressing question is why RCMP has never tried to gather this information before.
As the RCMP backgrounder notes, such information is a crucial tool for designing prevention strategies for those at greatest risk. This is why for more than a decade groups like the Native Women’s Association of Canada and Amnesty International have called for consistent, accurate collection and reporting of data on violence against Indigenous women and girls. There is simply no excuse for the failure to do so.
The bigger issue behind the failure to record and report on this data is that the federal government is simply not listening to the voices of Indigenous women. Government officials keeps referring to $25 million in programs, like funding for a new national missing persons database, that the government says are an adequate and appropriate response to the threats facedby Indigenous women and girls. But the government is not talking about all the calls for action from Indigenous women’s organizations and frontline service providers that have gone ignored.
This is why Amnesty International supports the growing demands for a national inquiry, long called for by Indigenous women's organizations, so that these voices can be heard, and there can be greater opportunity to hold government accountable for acting on the solutions identified by affected families and communities and other experts.
Critically, such an inquiry must be part of a commitment to a national action plan, so that piecemeal programs can be replaced with a comprehensive and coordinated response.
Every act of violence against women is deplorable. As we have said all along, the vastly disproportionate rate of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls is nothing less than a national human rights tragedy – and the response by government must be in keeping with the scale and severity of this violence.
Nothing less is acceptable.