This month’s toll: A 15-year-old-girl is pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg, her body wrapped in plastic; the remains of a woman are found near Kamloops, B.C., her skull in one place, her body in another; across the country, in Halifax, the murder trial over the death of a third woman is set to begin.
What unites these three cases is that the victims – Tina Fontaine, Samantha Paul and Loretta Saunders – were all aboriginal women. What else unites them, besides the abysmal circumstances of their deaths? What economic, cultural, historical or social factors? Anything? Nothing?
I’d like to know. Perhaps you would too. It might be useful information in preventing violence toward native women in this country, and adding to the 1,181 who have been killed or disappeared over the past 30 years, according to the RCMP. The United Nations would like to know why aboriginal women are more likely to be killed than the rest of the female population, and so would Human Rights Watch, the premiers of all the provinces, and not least the dead women’s families. The only people who seem not to want to know are the ones running the country.
According to the Prime Minister, Tina Fontaine’s death occurred in a vacuum, which would make it the only such event in human history. “We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon,” Stephen Harper said, yet again rejecting calls for an investigation into the deaths of indigenous women. “We should view it as crime.”
This echoing of Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum (“there is no such thing as society”) would be quaint, were there not actual corpses involved. There has already been enough “study” of the issue, the Prime Minister said, echoing Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s words of a few days earlier. I imagine them saying “study” in the same tone the rest of us reserve for “Ebola.” In other words, there are only individual crimes – no historical resonances, deep-rooted prejudices, systemic failures, structural cracks that swallow people whole. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
This government’s fear of facts, study and research into any topic that might cast it in a poor light is well documented, and not worth repeating here. But where actual lives are at stake, this truculence beggars belief: It is only three-year-olds, and not national governments, who should hide in the dark with pillows over their heads hoping that the bad thing will go away if they just don’t look. If they look, of course, they might just see something unpleasant that requires immediate attention, and a bit of courage.
On Feb. 13, the day police believe Inuit university student Loretta Saunders was killed in Halifax, the Native Women’s Association of Canada presented 23,000 signatures to the House of Commons, calling for a national inquiry. Those names may as well have been written in invisible ink, for all the attention Mr. Harper gave them.
Does that sound cynical? I feel cynical at this moment. If hundreds of cattle farmers had gone missing, or if oil executives and Bay Street lawyers were being snatched from the streets, I bet we would have studies and recommendations coming out our ears. You wouldn’t see the Peace Tower for the mountains of paper. Some lucky developer would be building a maximum-security prison to deal with the horrible wave of farmer/executive/lawyer violence. Dolefully voiced television commercials would warn of the danger to men in suits and Stetsons.
But these are aboriginal women, many of them poor and described, euphemistically, as “living a vulnerable lifestyle.” You would think that the vulnerable would be more in need of the state’s protection, not less, but perhaps I’m living in some utopian dream of Canada – the kind you see on TV, sometimes, advertising the country to foreign tourists.
There are plenty of activists who say a national inquiry is not the answer – that we have had enough talk, and what is needed is money-in-the-bank solutions like more funding for women’s shelters, counselling and mental health. They say we could start by implementing the recommendations that arose from the Pickton inquiry into the murders of aboriginal women in B.C. They worry that an Ottawa-led inquiry would ignore native voices and end up a whitewash.
Ideally, though, one would lead to another: A comprehensive investigation might reveal unseen patterns, offer evidence why the murder rate is rising among aboriginal women and falling elsewhere, and provide factual evidence that what we have here is indeed a “sociological phenomenon.” To suggest that we can have study or action, information or solutions, seems like a faulty equation. Surely one leads to the other?
An inquiry would be a way of honouring the women whose futures are lost. Ms. Saunders, 26, was a university student, working on a thesis about missing and murdered indigenous women. She was trying to gain knowledge, to piece together the fractured bits of our history and make sense of the picture it provided. Ms. Paul, 25, wanted to be a hairdresser, according to her aunt. I don’t know what Tina Fontaine wanted to be; who has any clue, at 15? There’s so much we don’t know about any of them. And at this rate we aren’t likely to find out.