At a time when Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples is treading on increasingly thin ice, many are questioning how long it will take before issues of importance to Indigenous populations register on the national agenda.
Last week’s throne speech and the Conservatives’ overwhelming apathy toward the crises faced by Indigenous peoples, including its demeaning references to Indigenous women, suggest that we shouldn’t hold our breath.
Nearly 600 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women have been reported in the last 20 years, and nearly half of the murder cases remain unsolved. Despite mounting pressure from local and international sources, the Conservative government has continuously dismissed calls for a national inquiry into these disappearances and deaths. Even the most recent speech from the throne has framed issues of violence against Indigenous women as a criminal matter that is peripheral to national interests.
Missing and murdered Indigenous women are an issue of importance to all Canadians
The scant acknowledgment of violence against Indigenous women in last week’s throne speech begins by stating the obvious: "Aboriginal women are disproportionately the victims of violent crime."
Finally, missing and murdered Indigenous women have made it onto the Conservatives’ radar. It only took two decades, hundreds of protests and marches, social outcry from families and loved ones and a UN Report recommending a national inquiry to make this an "issue."
According to a 2010 Report from the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), Indigenous women represent approximately ten per cent of the total number of female homicides in Canada despite only constituting three per cent of the total female population. The urgency of the matter was established decades ago. Now the Conservatives recognize it as an "issue of importance," treated with a degree of priority similar to television bundling, roaming charges and violence against police dogs.
The speech continues with a promise to renew "efforts to address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women."
The government claims to have already taken concrete action by working with the justice system and a parliamentary committee that’s studying the issue, and by providing additional resources to law enforcement. Its other efforts have involved commissioning targeted research to support their victim-blaming propaganda on missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Do these represent the efforts it plans on renewing? Or those that have been geared towards under-resourcing and undermining organizations and initiatives that aim to explore the structural causes of violence faced by Indigenous women? Or those that have sought to limit the capacity of support initiatives for victims and their families?
Since getting elected in 2006, the Conservative government has exercised more ideological hostility towards Indigenous women’s rights than any political party in Canadian history.
One of the more noteworthy blows came in 2010 when the Conservatives failed to renew $10 million in federal funding to Sisters in Spirit -- NWAC's research, education and policy initiative that has compiled data on missing and murdered Indigenous women over the past 30 years.
Instead, funds were allocated to policing initiatives to help "all Canadians," along with new funding rules that expressly prohibit the use of the Sisters in Spirit name in any proposed projects on missing and murdered Indigenous women, the use of federal funds to continue work on the database or the use of funds for future research and policy work in this area. In light of this track record and in the absence of any future community input on the direction of initiatives, it is difficult to perceive a "renewed effort"with much promise.
But let’s move on.
The speech continues "Canadians also know that prostitution victimizes women and threatens the safety of our communities. Our Government will vigorously defend the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws."
The positioning of this statement, which follows from the section on missing and murdered Indigenous women, frames violence against Indigenous women as extricably linked to sex work rather than acknowledging it as a product of systemic racism, colonialism and apathy.
Can the Conservatives really ignore ample evidence that criminalization of sex work creates higher risks of violence? Do they not understand that pushing women into the shadows does not address the problem of violence towards sex workers? Perhaps the other sections of the speech can provide some clarity on this approach.
Safeguarding "families and communities" and de-humanizing Indigenous women
Elsewhere in the throne speech, the Conservatives’ suggest that an effective measure for safeguarding "families and communities" will involve closing "loopholes that allow for the feeding of addiction under the guise of treatment."
In this case, people with addictions are framed as perpetrators that threaten the safety of "families and communities."
This stance on harm-reduction is consistent with the Conservatives’ general penchant for victim blaming. Indigenous women are addressed under "victims and criminals" section instead of being understood as parts of "families and communities."
By casting violence against Indigenous women aside as a criminal concern rather than as a systemic one, the government shirks its responsibility to respond in a comprehensive way. Of the cases where family data was recorded by NWAC, 88 per cent of women who have disappeared or died were mothers, and more than 440 children were impacted by the loss of their mother.
The Conservatives’ framing of violence against Indigenous women as outside or on the margins of the broader project of "safeguarding families and communities" functions to de-humanize and isolate Indigenous women from their roles as beloved family and community members.
UNSR James Anaya call for inquiry and Canada's need to gain responsibility
Amid criticism from international human rights actors including James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous peoples who concluded his Canadian visit the day prior to the speech from the throne, the Conservatives have remained firm in their obstructionist approach.
In assessing Canada’s state of crisis with regard to Indigenous peoples, Anaya dedicates necessary attention to "the disturbing phenomenon" of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Anaya notes that Indigenous women are "eight times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women" and that their cases "have a much higher tendency to remain unresolved than those involving non-aboriginal victims."
His assessment calls for a nationwide inquiry to "help ensure a coordinated response and the opportunity for the loved ones of victims to be heard" and to "demonstrate a responsiveness to the concerns raised by the families and communities affected by this epidemic."
While Anaya’s assessment is also limited by his oversight of the racist and colonial underpinnings of violence against Indigenous women, he expresses concern for Indigenous women's survival with a greater level of priority than the national government and proposes far more comprehensive solutions.
For Canada to even begin to repair its relationship with Indigenous peoples, we need a government that takes Indigenous women's concerns and aspirations seriously and will address them in a collaborative and assertive way rather than presenting them as marginal to the national political agenda.
So long as justice for Indigenous women is presented to the "families and communities" of Canada as a concern that does not affect them, it will be difficult to move to a place of care for one another and understand our roles within relationships of power and oppression that we are all implicated in and have a responsibility to address.
To find out what you can do to help the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, consult NWAC’s online Community Resource Guide.
Gina Starblanket is a PhD student at the University of Victoria. She is Cree, Saulteaux, French and German, and a member of the Starblanket Cree Nation in southern Saskatchewan.