It’s hard to spend time with Wally Oppal’s five-volume “missing women” report and not experience a range of feelings, among them sadness, anger and despair.
The disappearances of the 67 B.C. women, most of them aboriginal, that the former appeal court justice looked into can be traced back, in most instances, to lives that were stacked against them from the start.
Abuse and poverty were constants from the day they were born. Many were left to fend for themselves from a young age. Some had mental health issues. Others had alcohol and drug addictions. All were marginalized by broader society from the moment they took their first nervous, uncertain steps into an adult world that was waiting to prey on them.
The missing women’s story is one of the sorriest episodes in B.C.’s history. It’s also one of the biggest scandals in the history of policing in the province. And while Mr. Oppal, a former B.C. attorney-general, did a thorough job of dissecting the multitude of mistakes made by police in not nabbing serial murderer Robert Pickton sooner – much of the delay the result of indifference caused by racist attitudes – no one was held to account. Many officers and their superiors whose actions cost people their lives paid no price.
Why hasn’t anyone been fired? This is one of the most flagrant examples of mass dereliction of duty you’ll find. Yet, it seems that, as far as the police are concerned, a simple sorry is enough. No wonder people in the aboriginal community, including family members of the missing women, are so cynical about the process. I would be, too.
But then, why would the police act when there was no great hue and cry from the public? There’s no pressure on police brass from political leaders to discipline anyone because they aren’t under any pressure themselves from constituents.
The collective yawn that greeted the missing women report is beyond disturbing. Some television stations in Vancouver didn’t even lead their newscasts with it – they went with the weather, instead. People seem to be more irate about the $8-million that Mr. Oppal’s commission cost than the content of the report itself.
We diminish these women’s deaths because they were prostitutes and aboriginal. They put themselves in harm’s way, the thinking goes. If you stand on a street corner in a dangerous part of a big city selling your body, you can end up on a pig farm being murdered by some monster. Simple as that.
But, of course, it’s not. Many of those women did what they did because they felt they had no choice. They were poor. They were hungry. They were addicted. They had some despicable pimp threatening to kill them unless they went out and made some money for him. That’s why prostitution at this level is often called “survival sex.” These women did it to survive. Unimaginably difficult and heartbreaking circumstances put them on the street to be murdered. And a number of them were first nations women who continue to disappear at disproportionate rates from our streets every day.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada has been working with the RCMP to compile statistics on missing and murdered aboriginal women. That research indicates that, between 2000 and 2008, 153 cases of murdered aboriginal women and girls represented about 10 per cent of female homicides in Canada. Aboriginal women make up less than 4 per cent of the female population in the country.
In 2010, the Native Women’s Association published a database of nearly 600 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls identified in the past 20 years. B.C., and particularly Vancouver, accounted for a third of all cases in Canada, with 160. Of that number, 63 per cent were murdered, and 24 per cent remain missing.
There are no easy solutions to this ongoing tragedy. We can continue to blame this on colonialism and the fallout from residential schools if we want, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. We all bear a share of the blame, including the federal government and the aboriginal community itself.
We must all own this problem. There’s mass murder taking place in Canada and society doesn’t seem to care. And if it’s allowed to continue, we’ll all have blood on our hands – if we don’t already.