How can 3,000 missing women not be an issue for the 2011 election? A prominent issue, in fact?
Is it because the 3,000 missing women are Indigenous and not white-skinned?
As Canadians soon face the decision of who they want to run their country, let me remind you that it was the Conservative government under Stephen Harper that cut funding to Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC).
According to research conducted under NWAC's Sisters in Spirit program, nationally over 580 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing, most of them over the last 30 years.
I concede that the number is much higher, as Gladys Radek from Walk4Justice estimates over 3,000 women are known to have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since the 1970s, with at least 80 per cent of these women being from First Nations.
But it is the SIS program that has the hard facts of cases that were officially reported and investigated. It's truly a tragedy that we don't know the truth regarding how many mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmother, aunts and friends have gone missing, since, according to Radek, many cases go unreported.
It is not that Canada is unaware of the situation. Two years ago, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women issued this statement: "Hundreds of cases involving Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in the past two decades have neither been fully investigated nor attracted priority attention."
Now is election time and it's important that such a large number of missing Indigenous women does not go ignored.
For it is Stephen Harper's Conservative government that was responsible for the demise of NWAC's Sisters in Spirit. On Friday Oct. 29, 2010, the federal government announced the end of (by lack of funding) the Sisters in Spirit (SIS) program, an announcement made by MP Rona Ambrose.
As defined by its creator, NWAC, SIS was: "a research, education and policy initiative driven and led by Aboriginal women. Our primary goal is to conduct research and raise awareness of the alarmingly high rates of violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada."
Instead, the Conservative government has pledged $10 million in funding to develop a national police support centre for missing persons [Note: unlike the SIS database, this new initiative won't focus solely on Indigenous women] and unidentified remains that won't be operational until 2013 at the earliest.
The new police centre will rely on missing persons reports filed with local police forces. From the local police station reports, the new police database will provide linkages to other cases if they exist (what about complaints of racism and the charge that local police officers ignore or do not follow up on these missing persons reports?).
The government is basically taking the place of SIS, true to the adage of 'burning down the old village and building a new one' -- but with a database and centre whose politics it can control.
Before the election, the Liberal party released a statement on February 14, 2011, for the national day of action for murdered and missing Indigenous women stating its support for the restoration of funding to the SIS program.
In the press release, Liberal Women's Caucus Chair Lise Zarac said, "By trying to shut down the Sisters in Spirit program, the Conservative government is undermining civil society's ability to improve gender equality in Canada."
"It's clear that Stephen Harper's priorities are in the wrong place when he would rather give tax breaks to the largest corporations and spends billions of dollars on fighter jets than fund this initiative. The sad truth is Aboriginal women and girls will continue to go missing until more is done to stop this violence," concluded Ms. Zarac.
This is a good start, but we need more than just words -- a one time mention by the current official opposition. I want this issue brought up -- Harper challenged -- during the official election 2011 debate by all opposition parties. 3,000 murdered deserve no less.
They also need more than words. Justice demands an apology and then action.
As we wait for justice, the list of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada continues to grow: Out a total of 582 cases across the country, 393 died as a result of murder or negligence. And 115 remain missing. Only 53 per cent of the cases involving Indigenous women was someone charged, whereas the average rate for charges in a homicide in Canada is 84 per cent.
I attended the Aboriginal Missing and Murdered Women's Conference at the Native Canadian Centre in early March 2011 and found out disturbing statistics regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Ontario.
I learned that NWAC has, "gathered information on approximately 70 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Ontario. This accounts for 12 per cent of cases in the NWAC database."
"The large number of cases in Ontario illustrates that the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls is not just a 'west-coast problem,' but rather a national concern impacting central Canada."
When discussing Indigenous concerns as election issues, the case for justice for murdered and missing Indigenous women cannot be viewed in isolation but must be viewed in tandem with the high rates of poverty facing Indigenous families, the lack of health services and clean drinking water and the systematic destruction of culture through the residential school system and other policies of assimilation.
In an inter-generational context, all the factors are interconnected and need to be addressed for true justice and healing to take place.
For more information, please see:
Walk for Justice 2011 (National)
Women's Memorial March (B.C.)
Highway of Tears (B.C.)
Justice for Missing and Murdered (Montreal)
No More Silence (Toronto)
Native Women's Association of Canada (Sisters in Spirit program)
Red Circle Alert (National)