Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science and a distinguished fellow at the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary. He was also a campaign manager for conservative political parties.
Provincial premiers and native organizations are finally taking the initiative on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women, compromising on their calls for a federally led inquiry in favour of a national roundtable organized by the provinces. Federal involvement was never likely to accomplish much, because almost all programs and services with a bearing on the prevalence of murder are under the control of the provinces or aboriginal people themselves.
First, a reminder about demographics. According to the 2011 census, there are about 1.4 million aboriginal people in Canada. Of these, only about 400,000 live on Indian reserves. The other million – Métis, non-status Indians and about half of the First Nations population – reside off-reserve in Canadian towns and cities. So about 70 per cent of aboriginal people live under provincial jurisdiction and get their social services from provincial and local governments, sometimes in co-operation with native organizations.
Hospitals and clinics encounter the victims of violence. They also offer the prenatal care that could help lessen the ravages of fetal alcohol syndrome, which, because of poor impulse control and anger management, may promote violent behaviour. But hospitals and clinics are run by the provinces; the federal government has little role in the delivery of health services.
Native children living off-reserve, and about 40 per cent of those living on-reserve, are enrolled in provincial school systems. If schools are failing in their educational mission with aboriginal students, that failure is mainly provincial. Fewer than 100,000 aboriginal students attend on-reserve schools, which also have notorious problems, but these are run by First Nations themselves, not by the federal government. The Assembly of First Nations recently rejected a federal attempt to improve these schools, which would have included a large infusion of cash.
Then there are the family service organizations, which try to help neglected and abused children, sometimes offering advice and supervision, sometimes putting them into foster care. This again is a provincial responsibility, although native organizations play a substantial role in some regions. However well or poorly these social workers carry out their mandate, the federal government has nothing to do with it.
Finally, there is local policing, which is also a provincial and municipal responsibility, with a few larger First Nations maintaining their own police forces. Big-city police forces, provincial police in Ontario and Quebec, and RCMP officers working on provincial contracts in the rest of the country encounter both the victims and perpetrators of violence, apprehend runaway teens, roust prostitutes and drug addicts, and often make up society’s first line of contact with those who are most at risk. Of course, they are bound by the federally legislated Criminal Code, but they are directed by the provinces, and they work mainly with provincial prosecutors.
There may be one genuinely federal issue here. Section 718(2)e of the Criminal Code, reinforced by the Supreme Court’s Gladue decision, requires judges to take offenders’ aboriginal background into consideration when passing sentence. It would be worth studying whether this has put dangerous aboriginal offenders back on the streets more quickly, perhaps contributing to violence against aboriginal victims, who, like all victims, are mostly assaulted or murdered by people they know. But this would be a project for a small team of researchers; it does not require a public inquiry.
“National” does not have to mean “organized and paid for by the federal government.” In today’s world, the provinces, with important co-operation from native organizations, control almost all the jurisdictions that relate directly to aboriginal violence. The proposed roundtable can be a constructive step if the provinces and native organizations use it to examine their own programs, and not just to demand more money from Ottawa.