Barbara McDougall is a former federal Minister Responsible for the Status of Women .
There have been many calls for a public inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of over 1,000 native women – no one knows the actual number, a tragedy in itself – but more information and public machinations will not be an appropriate memorial to these sadly lost women and girls.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth, wrote a well-reasoned and passionate article last week that should provide the foundation for action on behalf of Canada’s aboriginal women and children. What Ms. Turpel-Lafond, and the expert she relies on, former Judge Ted Hughes, are calling for is action. There is plenty of information available: the RCMP itself, not always seen as a friend to native communities, produced earlier this year one of the most complete reports on the disappearances, and as long as I can remember there have been studies and reports on causes and potential solutions to issues affecting aboriginal women. Another study, a public inquiry, another statistical analysis, will not help with an issue already overloaded with information, including the ways in which society deals with native children.
What is needed and morally demanded is action. The Prime Minister is right in saying the disappearances of these women are crimes and should be dealt with as crimes. But what his statement misses is that the disproportionate number of crimes against native women calls for a different level of response. The vulnerability of native women is terrifying, even to those of us who are not native. The impact on children is not only heart-rending, but an outrage. And the issues affecting women and children, which are so obviously linked, are not new.
My own experience with them goes back to the 1960s. As a prison volunteer for the Elizabeth Fry Society, I found that native women were disproportionately our charges, and their children were left vulnerable at home while they served serious jail time for drunkenness or stealing cigarettes or prostitution. Many of them had been beaten all their lives, and for some, getting away from their husbands was probably a relief, but often their children were left in home environments that ensured they had no future. Since then, the numbers have only become worse – alarmingly so in recent years – but behind every statistic there is a human tragedy, and for every one we know of, there are probably a hundred more.
I am tired of hearing that colonialism is the source of all these problems, and I’m not convinced that it is more than a partial truth. But I’m not sure that is what matters. What is essential is to take action on what may be the most important social issue of our time, whatever its no doubt complex causes, with determination, sympathy and cultural respect.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond calls on the premiers at their conference next week to come up with a national strategy, I assume on native children, since that is her field. I would certainly support that, as long as it extends to native women also, and includes participation by native communities. Most governments, including the federal government, are taking bits of action through various fragmented programs, but they need to be evangelists for these women and children, and to coordinate their efforts in what will take a profound effort, and maybe several generations, to heal the wounds of an increasingly terrible human tragedy.