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National inquiry won't keep Indigenous women safe, but it couldn't hurt

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Image: flickr/Howl Art Collective

Some of you might be asking, "Who would oppose an inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW)? I mean, besides Harper and his cronies. Only awful people, probably!"

The reality is of course much more complicated than this. Many Indigenous people oppose an inquiry for some very valid reasons, mostly centering on Canada's track record of pouring millions of dollars into inquiries that result in a whack of fantastic recommendations that are never, ever implemented. Or worse, setting up inquiries that are worse than useless and pretending the issue was dealt with, case closed.

Sarah Hunt wrote a very nuanced and specific criticism to the concept of a national inquiry on MMIW. I started quoting passages from it and then realized I'd pretty much copied and pasted the entire article, so please, stop now and read it.

Beyond the issue of recommendations that are left to gather dust or inquiries that are a tragic farce from start to finish, many people feel that the root causes of so many cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women are actually fairly well known already. The problem is deeply systemic, rooted in a fundamental devaluing of Indigenous lives, and of Indigenous women in particular. Can an inquiry, rooted in this system, see its own structures as a major factor in these deaths and disappearances? Even if it could, would an inquiry be able to actually make changes to that system?

I disagree with none of these points. I fully agree with those who worry that the response to MMIW is to reach for wider powers for police, more control over First Nations lives, more blame for victims and families and communities without building structures of accountability within government-mandated services that fail our people utterly. I do not for a moment believe that an inquiry is capable of doing away with any of these things. A national inquiry will not fix things.

So why then am I not in opposition to a national inquiry, despite the fact that I clearly do not support one?

Creating a national narrative? Or making space for a national discussion?

Truth and reconciliation commissions were designed as a way to bring to light truths that were deliberately being denied by the state. They are considered a form of transitional justice, because they are focused on providing a national narrative of (often state-perpetrated) violence without going through the very difficult and oft-times impossible process of establishing judicially recognized fact/culpability. They are a way to speak the truths that must be spoken for there to be any hope of healing, but they are only a first step in a much longer process.

In my opinion, these commissions should merely be called "Truth" commissions. I do not believe they can accomplish reconciliation, and in fact many TRCs which provide amnesty in order to procure honest testimony, end up being used as a shield by state actors.

A national inquiry on MMIW would not be a truth and reconciliation commission, in the main because the violence being brought to light needs to have ended before the truth can be spoken about it. That is most certainly not the case here. We are still losing our relatives. The violence is ongoing.

What a national inquiry has the potential to do is foster a national discussion. I say discussion rather than narrative, because the story is not over. It continues to unfold around us, laying our hearts to waste one grisly discovery after another.

No doubt some people reading this are asking why we need an inquiry to have this national discussion. I ask the same question. Indigenous communities do not need an inquiry to have this discussion; it has been ongoing for decades. Yet the wider Canadian public has only recently begun to hear about MMIW as an issue. I suppose I would say that it seems to me, there is such a deep disconnect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples that these "official Canadian" proceedings are one way of bridging the gap. A gap that itself is indicative of the systemic roots of violence against Indigenous land and bodies.

I don't care about money. The Canadian government loses billions of dollars and doesn't bother to account for it, so the millions an inquiry would likely cost are a drop in the bucket. Canada is so bereft of fundamental justice for Indigenous peoples, and the resulting cost in human lives is so high, no amount of whining about the sôniyaws this will cost are about to sway me.

I don't for a second believe that the money a national inquiry would cost would somehow be funneled into useful projects to protect Indigenous women and children if only we chose that instead. That isn't even on the table, no matter how much we know it should be.

Although I do not believe a national inquiry will stop this violence, I do respect the wishes of many of the family members who need this discussion to happen, for these stories to be told in order to help them heal. If that were all an inquiry could possibly accomplish, just a sliver of closure, of healing, for even one grieving family member, I would still say "let's do it".

An inquiry has the potential to examine the structures of violence and the way they intersect. It has the potential to get the general Canadian public talking about more than speculations as to choices made by individual victims. Let's look into intergenerational trauma from Residential Schools. Let's look into the impact of astronomic suicide rates in our communities, the violence of poverty, the way child welfare services are implicated. Let's look at how police investigate (or fail to) these crimes.

Does it matter that these questions have been asked before? Does it matter that we have some of the answers already? Couldn't we bring together all the studies that have already been done, and cobble together a pretty good "big picture"?

Sure. That's what Indigenous-led organizations are already doing. But I do not oppose there being yet another venue for discussion. Let there be a flood of studies, and databases, and memorial projects and marches. Let the hue and cry grow so loud and inescapable that for one goddamn moment this country be forced to pay attention.

One tool of many

Despite all of the flaws I do see with a possible national inquiry, I see very little use in opposing it. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples submitted 444 recommendations, the bulk of which were never implemented. Yet the report has had a tremendous influence on court cases, on policy development, on research, on people just trying to learn more of the history of this country. I have a love/hate relationship with the RCAP but I refer to it often, and I am grateful for its existence.

What we cannot allow, is for a national inquiry to be the final or only response to violence against Indigenous women. I think whether you oppose or support such an inquiry, this much is clear.


Image: flickr/Howl Art Collective

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