Ottawa's political needs trump recording violence against Aboriginal women

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Created in 2005, Sisters in Spirit has led the way in research on missing and murdered aboriginal women. Their April 2010 report "What Their Stories Tell Us," identified the knowledge gaps that have hurt the creation of effective policies and programming to address the high number of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in Canada.

So it mystifies many Aboriginal women and their advocates that Sisters in Spirit was shunned by the Conservatives in a recent $10 million announcement to deal with violence against Aboriginal women.

Money will go to a laundry list of justice initiatives and some community actions. Since many of the ideas were first identified by Sisters in Spirit, the implementation could only benefit from the continued attention of the Aboriginal women who have become experts at decoding missing person's data. But that is not to be.

Four million dollars of the $10 million will go to a National Police Support Centre for Missing Persons -- a pan-Canadian system not specifically aimed at handling the numerous cases of missing Aboriginal women. Other money will go to enhance the existing police database to additional information about missing people is captured. These are important strategies but why is money earmarked for ending violence against Aboriginal women going to pan-Canadian programs?

What more is needed? Sisters in Spirit identified that current missing persons list ethnicity as white/non-white. So they had to go through files of missing women to determine if they were Aboriginal or not. Even now, when many police forces use more identifiers, Sisters in Spirit still had to go through each individual file labelled "Indian" to understand if it was an indigenous woman or an East Indian woman.

Another important discovery was the length of time between the first contact with police by family or friends concerned about a disappearance and when the police actually begin a search. Too often, police acted on stereotypes about activities rather than acting the best interests of the missing woman.

The most sobering statistic was that nearly half of the more than 400 murder cases identified by Sisters in Spirit remain unsolved. Of the cases where charges have been laid, a disturbing trend was noticed where three times as many Aboriginal women are killed by strangers compared to non-Aboriginal women.

That research is now at risk because the Conservatives refuse to fund Sisters in Spirit or even recognize any funding requests coming under that name. It has insisted that the Native Women's Association of Canada, the host organization for Sisters in Spirit, stop all research activities, including those needed to maintain the missing and murdered women database. And to only apply for any further funding with the name "Evidence to Action." (See story from APTN "Moon setting on Sisters in Spirit")

Too often we see programs designed in Ottawa to satisfy a political need that doesn't take into account the needs on the ground. Sisters in Spirit showed the gaps in reporting and investigations into missing and murdered women and their reward is to be shut down.

This latest announcement by the federal government continues to demonstrate a lack of commitment to real action to working with the families of murdered and missing Aboriginal women and to ending the violence against these women.

Sisters in Spirit and its logo, Grandmother Moon, are recognized across Canada. This past October over 80 communities held Sisters in Spirit vigils to remember missing and murdered women. It will take more than bullying by the Conservatives for that name to disappear.

Member of Parliament Jean Crowder is the NDP Aboriginal affairs critic.

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