After 600 Aboriginal women and girls go missing or are found murdered in Canada, the federal government decides to throw-a-bone and give $10 million dollars. In March, the Canadian Minister of Justice budgeted $10 million over two years to address the issue of murdered and missing women in Canada, however, they have yet to figure out how to use the money.
Many justice organizations such as Amnesty International and Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) have made recommendations. Both organizations suggest that the $10 million is not enough to support the decades of injustice for Aboriginal women and girls.
NWAC said the $10 million cannot prompt real change in the lives of women who are experiencing violence, families who have never received justice, or appropriate counselling or support through victim services. NWAC have been collecting evidence, raising awareness, and developing policy directives to address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls since 2005.
"It's unclear. Is the $10 million new money, or just allocated within the same budget?" said Craig Benjamin, campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples at Amnesty International Canada. "There hasn't been word on where the $10 million came from. But it is definitely not enough."
NWAC Sisters' in Spirit director Kate Rexe said if the money is spent wisely with commitment from all levels of government and NGOs, there is an opportunity to change the system and how it responds to violence and the disappearance of Aboriginal women and girls.
"NWAC recommends a comprehensive action plan based on four key areas of priorities: Increasing access to justice, reducing violence against Aboriginal women and girls, increasing economic security, and reducing the impact of children in care," Rexe said.
How could the $10 million be used specifically? Mandatory police and justice officials training?
Since this $10 million is mandated by the Minister of Justice, Rexe said this funding should primarily address Aboriginals' access to justice. Rexe said the funds should target: mandatory training of police officers and justice officials to understand the history of Aboriginal people, systemic violence and human rights abuses and today's impact and outcomes of government policies such as the Indian Act.
Rexe said that navigating through the Indian justice system is complex. The right tools and resources are needed to support family, friends, and those who have experienced violence. "[Justice System navigation tools] will help families, as well as police and justice officials, in the reporting of cases, accessing programs and resources for help and healing, developing networks of support, and raising awareness of where gaps are in the system with the aim to fill in these gaps."
According to the Department of Justice Canada, since 1991 it has implemented the Aboriginal Justice Strategy (AJS). The AJS programs are aimed at reducing the rates of victimization, crime and incarceration among Aboriginal people and helping the mainstream justice system become more responsive and sensitive to the needs and culture of Aboriginal communities.
In 2002, Jessie Sutherland, Director of Worldview Strategies, said in an article that the Aboriginal Justice Strategy may attend to some of colonialism's surface wounds, but it certainly doesn't address the systemic root problems nor offer lasting solutions. She said a successful Aboriginal Justice Strategy must go beyond participatory and indigenized justice processes. Rather, it must support healing and capacity building within First Nations communities as well as endeavor to decolonize and repair the relationship with the Canadian state.
Attempts were made to contact the Aboriginal Justice Directorate to provide details on implementation of the strategy, how it is funding community-based justice programs and the capacity building fund and how it measures the strategy, today. However, no response was given.
The federal government developed a volunteer Professional Development Centre for Aboriginal Policing (PDCAP) in 2006. PDCAP states it is the only program in Canada completely dedicated to providing advanced training specifically for police officers working in Aboriginal communities. The Centre provides three courses and one senior police officer course. It is small unit consisting of two staff members Inspector Lennard Busch, Manager of PDCAP and Sergeant Craig Nyirfa. The courses are taught by the two officers and they also invite speakers from across Canada to train officers on the history of Aboriginal people, the Aboriginal culture and courtesies.
For one officer to go through all three courses it costs $7,026. For a senior officer to take all four courses it costs $9,908. Nyirfa said it is a volunteer program and cost does affect some who cannot afford to travel and take the courses. "[Busch] is looking for opportunities to create scholarships for those who can't afford the course. We've also taken steps to take training on the road so they don't have to necessarily come to Ottawa to take the course." Nyirfa mentioned numerous times that they are a small unit of two. The courses they offer are:
• Senior Police Administration Course (SPAC)
Several federal and local police task forces have been created to combat violence against Aboriginal women, but Benjamin said that there are huge gaps in police accountability. "I've talked to many families who their loved ones have been missing or their loved ones have been found murdered and they don't know whether the police are doing a good job or a bad job.
"There is no national or local policy on how to investigate missing Aboriginal women and girls. When families speak out, they feel stonewalled. Police seemed to not be concerned and are unresponsive," Benjamin added.
Benjamin said it takes tremendous strength for Aboriginal people who are victims to maintain hope and continue to fight when there is no accountability. "On every level, there is no mandate or open discussion with police on missing Aboriginal women and girls," he said.
Rexe said one of the problems is that Aboriginal women are often criminalized by police before an investigation starts. She recalled "A 13-year-old girl was taken from a shopping mall. When the mother reported her missing to the police, the officer asked, ‘Was she working?' She said, ‘No, she's 13-year-old.' The officer said, ‘No, is she a prostitute?'"
Rexe said Aboriginal women are assumed to be drug addicts and prostitutes. She said that race, economic, and gender barriers to justice must be broken. Can $10 million over two years support that?
Can $10 million over two years put a dent in the legacy of injustice that contributed to and perpetuated violence against Aboriginal women? In future articles, events and policies throughout Canada's history that created strong and still apparent gender-based and racialized barriers will be discussed. Some of the impacts are colonialism, residential schools, available statistical data, the Indian Act and a two decade period called the "60's Scoop" or the "Stolen Generation."
"All these programs were designed by the government to get the "Indian" out of Indians," Rexe said.
There is hope
There is hope that things can change for Aboriginal women in Canada. There are many organizations like Battered Women's Support Services, NWAC, Amnesty International, and many others fighting every day for Aboriginal women's rights. There are Aboriginal mothers who have had their daughters stolen like Laurie Odjick and they continue to have the strength to fight and pressure the Canadian government and their communities to do more.
Gladys Radek, founder of Walk4Justice, who's had her niece stolen, is leading a group of supporters to march on British Columbia's Highway 16 known as the Highway of Tears.
British Columbia, according to a NWAC report, has the most "known" cases of missing and murdered women of any province, with 137 victims.
These organizations and supporters have rallied around and are fighting alongside the victims. They are not alone. There is hope that they can continue to persuade and mobilize more Canadians and the government to care and act on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Aboriginals are not asking for money and they need more than an apology. They are asking for justice, accountability, equality, social services, dignity, recognition of their culture, and healing. Frankly, they are asking for human rights.
Sidenote: Last year the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights received 50 submissions from NGOs slamming Canada for it human rights violations citing racism, sexism, aboriginal rights, poverty and Canadians facing death penalty overseas. The UN adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by a vote of the overwhelming majority of UN members states.
The Canadian government said it would "take steps to endorse this aspirational document in a manner fully consistent with Canada's Constitution and laws" but ultimately rejected the declaration. Other countries who rejected and voted against the declaration were United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Since 2007, Australia is the only country who reversed its position.
Jamaal Bell is the executive editor for Race-Talk and the media relations manager for the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. This story first appear in Race-Talk and Alternet.org.