Canada's rejection of inquiry into violence against Aboriginal women is a national disgrace

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In 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva conducted a Universal Period Review of Canada's rights record and concluded its need to address the concerns of indigenous populations -- particularly, Aboriginal women.

During that year, fifty submissions slammed Canada on topics from labour rights to foreign policy and highlighted the country in the worst way among the 192 UN member states. According to a report by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, Alex Neve said: "The Canadian record of upholding the rights of indigenous peoples is a real disgrace and a source of national shame... These are not political, economic or natural resource matters. These are issues of human rights."

Four years later, it is again time for Canada to face the UNHRC.

The Canadian Press reports that nations including "Cuba, Iran, Belarus and Russia [used the UNHRC] to criticize Canada's human-rights record, as the Canadian envoy rejected calls to develop a comprehensive national review to end violence against aboriginal women."

Other countries that called for a review and investigation into deaths, murders and disappearances include Norway, Switzerland, Slovenia and New Zealand.

All parties are demanding the formation of a comprehensive national commission and definitive reconciliation projects which acknowledge the still-persisting colonial and historical injustices exercised against indigenous groups in Canada.

Elissa Goldberg, Canada's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, has spent the past couple of days reassuring member states of the country's "strong legal and policy framework for the promotion and protection of human rights, and [its] independent court system." She has further proclaimed Canada's "strong commitment" to such issues through the implementation of federal and provincial initiatives.

Specious 'promises' such as those made by Goldberg should be familiar, not only to political observers, but to Aboriginal people who have been repeatedly let down by the system. From a failure to comprehensively fund post-secondary education, honour treaties and land rights, and, in the words of Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, the implementation of "coercion and racialized polic[ies]," Indigenous realities have remained steadfastly incongruous with official government agreements.

Today, Aboriginals are over-represented in Canadian prisons, poor health indices, disabilities and poverty. They suffer from negative social stigmas borne of problematic relationships with white settler communities, police forces and government officials, and are daily victims of systemic racism.

But what of the conditions for Aboriginal women?

According to an Amnesty International report, "Indigenous women are five to seven times more likely than other women to die as the result of violence. The Native Women's Association of Canada has documented more than 580 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, most within the last three decades. Because of gaps in police and government reporting, the actual numbers may be much higher."

The document continues, "Canadian police and public officials have also long been aware of a pattern of racist, sexist violence against First Nations, Inuit and Metis women in their homes and on the streets. But government response has been shockingly out of step with the scale and severity of this tragedy."

Fractured aboriginal families, urban poverty and isolation on reserves have left many women and girls vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Yet despite the magnitude of cases, the justice system has been largely unable -- or unwilling -- to devote serious inquiry into pervasive crimes. Complicit too is the federal government which, in 2010, severed funding to the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) and its "Sisters in Spirit" initiative. The organization is a critical element of aboriginal solidarity. In the words of professor and activist Pamela Palmater, blogging at Indigenous Nationhood:

"Without our women, our communities and Nations can't move forward on our collective goals of nation-building and cultural revitalization. NWAC has proved that despite all the assimilatory policies, discriminatory laws, and racist attitudes of police and governments who allowed this to happen to our women, that we, the women, can and will stand as warriors and defend ourselves."

Inquiry, reconciliation and admission of past failures must be the first steps taken by the federal government to at least meekly rectify its abandonment of a comprehensive national review at the UNHRC.

Canada's international reputation cannot stand for injustice and failed promises to our most subordinated communities. Regrettably, though, it's been dealt serious blows as of late.

Dropping the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), pulling out of Kyoto, abandoning environmental protections against dirty oil in Northern Alberta, to a relative sea change in foreign policy goals has left Canada in what many have criticized an anachronistic position -- distant from its traditional principles and role on the world stage.

But Canada's Aboriginal population is steadily growing faster than all other groups -- it expanded 20 per cent from 2006-2011 -- and the time for real action is now.

The systemic and historic precedents of violence against Aboriginal women are many, and must be acknowledged. By comprehensively funding shelters, mental health and addictions counseling, and providing a range of sources to children and new parents, the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal populations will gradually decrease.

Canada's rejection of a comprehensive national review of violence against Indigenous women should be regarded a disgrace. In the face of international criticism, it is also telling. It reveals the need for greater pressure from below, from grassroots movements like Idle No More and organizations like the NWAC and its "Sisters in Spirit" initiative. It also delineates the conditions of resistance against the state and demands change.

The call? A simple four words: No more stolen sisters!


Harrison Samphir is the senior editor at The Uniter, Winnipeg's alternative weekly magazine. He holds a B.A. (Hons.) in history from the University of Manitoba. He can be reached at hsamphir[at]gmail[dot]com or followed on Twitter @HarrySamphir 

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