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On Human Rights Day, Indigenous women still face two layers of discrimination

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B.C. Minister's Advisory Council on Aboriginal Women

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December 10 is International Human Rights Day. It's also the last of the United Nation's 16 days to end violence against women and girls. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to end gendered violence or ensure gender equality -- yet.

But, hope looms on the horizon. The Liberal government announced this week that the inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls will begin laying the ground work with a much needed pre-inquiry. This first step is essential to ensuring that the inquiry will accomplish its mandate as well as have the human power and funding to implement and monitor all recommendations.

I have neither the lived experience to comment on the design and implementation of the inquiry, nor the expertise to discuss the scope or the institutions that should be investigated. Instead, I'm relying on, and relaying to you, the expert information that was shared during a recent webinar entitled: Where are we now?  A National Inquiry, Federal, Provincial/Territorial, and Civil Initiatives. This collaborative effort between the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) and the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) was the third in a three-part series. The presenters were Dr. Dawn Harvard, President of NWAC and Shelagh Day, Chair, Human Rights Committee, FAFIA.

It was the dedication and hard work of NWAC and FAFIA that brought global attention, outrage and pressure to bear on the issue of Canada's murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. 

Both the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) found that violence against Indigenous is an extreme form of racism, sexism and discrimination. As Dr. Harvard stated, "Indigenous women face two layers of discrimination from birth.  One layer from being part of a racialized group and a second by being women."

The violence Indigenous women experience violates six basic human rights to:

  • life
  • be free from torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • equal protection
  • liberty and security of person
  • health
  • just and favourable conditions of work

All levels of government have obligations to ensure that these rights are upheld for all citizens.

The Federal Inquiries Act, 1985, was created with a very broad in scope to enable the federal government to create any inquiry into the government itself or the conduct of any part of public business. Through this process a problem can be scrutinized and identified remedies implemented.

Canada has had many inquiries over the years including a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991-6), the Krever Inquiry into tainted blood (1993-7), and the Walkerton Inquiry into tainted water (2000-2). The former Conservative government argued against an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls because it said that action was required. However, no action was forthcoming from Harper's government.

The current inquiry will study the systemic causes that have led to the proliferation of murders and disappearances, but will lead to action during, as well as after, the investigation. Recommendations arising from the inquiry will hopefully be implemented in full in a timely manner. So, action can be initiated throughout the process and continue on after its conclusion.

The Liberal government has chosen a wise path by including the affected families and communities in pre-inquiry discussions. This groundwork will outline the mandate and scope of the inquiry and influence implementation of recommendations. 

Included in the pre-inquiry work will be establishing:

  • terms of reference
  • criteria for the appointment of commissioners and staff who will be tasked with asking the hard questions and dealing effectively with all levels of government
  • a realistic timeline (2 years?) and budget ($20 million/year?)
  • methods of public engagement
  • the focus which hopefully will be on human rights violations that will lead to systemic changes 

The pre-inquiry lays the foundation so these crucial first steps need to be flawless to ensure it's done right because there's only one chance to do this properly. 

The Liberals, NDP, Green Party, all the premiers, the UN, IACHR, Canadian Human Rights Council, Aboriginal groups and leaders, and 75 per cent of the Canadian population believe that an inquiry is imperative.

All of these groups need to prepare themselves for the truths that will be unearthed. They also need to be open to changing the roles institutions play in consciously or unconsciously undermining the human rights of Indigenous women and girls. The federal, provincial and territorial, and Indigenous governments will need to cooperate to produce a coordinated action plan that includes a realistic timetable, reasonable budget, and transparent and effective means of monitoring the recommendations.

Most importantly, this inquiry needs to:

  • be led by, and centred on, Indigenous women and girls
  • provide emotional and financial supports for families to ensure their participation
  • use a human rights framework and build on the CEDAW and IACHR reports
  • address the root causes of violence with emphasis on social and economic marginalization
  • produce a strategic, coordinated plan of action with a local focus

Unlike the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which dealt with historical events and a policy that had ended, the inquiry into murdered and missing women and girls is investigating an ongoing issue. More women and girls may be murdered or disappear during the inquiry process and implementation of recommendations. 

In the meantime, Canadians can start making small changes that will improve the lives of all women and girls. In the case of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, as with all forms of violence against women, men need to take ownership of the problem. Not all men are violent toward women and girls, but those who are destroy lives and communities. Men who are not committing the violence need to become allies and speak up when they see or hear abuse. Men need to teach boys and youth that being a man means respecting all women and girls and treating them as equals because women's rights are human rights.

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Image: Flickr/bcgovphotos

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