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Gary Mason

Gary Mason

GARY MASON

Are native leaders ready to be part of the solution? Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was right to reject calls for a national inquiry into the matter of missing and murdered aboriginal women. The aboriginal community in Canada has been studied to death.

The killing of Winnipeg teenager Tina Fontaine is a tragedy, as it would be for any 15-year-old. We don’t know who killed her, but we do know a bit about the circumstances that led to her being homeless, which made her vulnerable to violent crime.

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Sadly, Tina’s back story is not an unfamiliar one in this country. There are thousands of young aboriginal women living in situations not dissimilar to the one where Tina found herself. They stay with relatives because their parents, struggling with addiction and other issues, are unable to care for them. Some are physically or sexually abused. For many, a life on the streets is better than the one they have at home.

This is nothing new – we’ve known it for years. In B.C., the provincial Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, has regularly highlighted the pitiable circumstances in which many young aboriginal children find themselves. Last year, she looked into the B.C. government’s decision to hand over child welfare authority to the province’s First Nations a decade ago.

She was prompted, in part, by the high number of calls her office was receiving from kids in native communities looking for help or requesting bus tickets out of town. For many, living on the streets of Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside was the better option. What Ms. Turpel-Lafond discovered was staggering: Nearly $66-million of federal and provincial funding had gone to aboriginal child-welfare authorities without a single penny of it going to help children.

She also found examples of provincial child-welfare workers being threatened and intimidated when they tried to investigate claims of neglect and abuse among native children. So what did those workers do? They stayed away. In one tragic case, a girl committed suicide after her pleas for help were ignored. Police don’t even want to go to some of these reserves, because of the violence and threats against their life. So they don’t.

The hard truth about today’s debate around missing and murdered aboriginal women is this: Nothing will be done to address this matter until aboriginal leaders own some of the responsibility themselves. For too long now, they have pointed the fingers at everyone else and refused to be held accountable. It’s the province’s fault. It’s Ottawa’s fault. It’s the fault of everyone but First Nations themselves.

Well, it’s not all the fault of the federal and provincial governments, and to the extent it is, the issue has been that Canada’s political leadership has abrogated its responsibility. Because of liberal white guilt or whatever, governments have been happy to hand over tens of millions of dollars to aboriginal communities with few strings attached, and we’ve seen the consequences – often, that money gets used for no useful purpose. Where it goes, no one seems to know.

There is no question that Canada has a shameful history with its aboriginal peoples. The residential schools experiment was an unmitigated disaster. But continuing to focus on failed policies from decades ago does nothing to help the current lives of aboriginal people, especially children. At some point, native leadership needs to set aside its anger.

We should be repulsed by the conditions on many reserves, and equally appalled by the evidence of rampant child neglect and abuse that has been documented in many of these communities for years. But simply throwing money at the problem will not work.

If political leaders in Canada truly want to deal with the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women, it will be a painful process involving lots of hard questions. Sacred cows will need to be smashed. And nothing substantial will come unless the native leadership are full partners in the process, with all the accountability that comes with that. They may want to think about whether they want that level of responsibility.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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