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Andre Picard's Second Opinion

With more than 500 aboriginal women missing, action is overdue Add to ...

Last week, the Manitoba government announced the creation of a joint RCMP and Winnipeg Police task force to investigate dozens of cases of missing and murdered women in the province.

The news, while welcome, raises the question: Why limit the investigation to Manitoba?

It is true that there are at least 75 missing women in the province, virtually all of them aboriginal. Police have been seemingly incapable of solving the cases and halting the race-based violence.

But, nationwide, the data are even more gut-wrenching: The Native Women's Association of Canada has catalogued 520 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women, half of them since the year 2000.

The women, most under the age of 30, are overwhelmingly victims of sexual violence. They are being preyed upon systematically by sexual sadists, killers and probably more than one serial killer.

How can this not be considered a national priority for police, justice and public-health officials?

Sadly, when a native woman is murdered or vanishes under suspicious circumstances, it does not mobilize police action nor generate near as much media attention as similar cases involving non-native women.

They were drunk. They were sex workers. They came from unstable family backgrounds. They were runaways. They were party girls. An endless litany of excuses for inaction is trotted out with shocking regularity.

Let's be blunt. The main reason an in-depth investigation is required is that the situation reeks of racism, stereotyping and discrimination. There seems to be a deadly double standard at play.

It is true that many of the 500-plus aboriginal women who have been murdered or disappeared had difficult life circumstances.

But it is precisely these circumstances - alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse, the sequelae of residential schools, poverty, survival sex, etc. - that placed them at much higher risk.

The life expectancy of an aboriginal is a decade less than a non-aboriginal in Canada. The rate of infant mortality is three times higher. The suicide rate is six times higher. Aboriginal people have a rate of diabetes and heart disease three times the national average, and dramatically higher rates of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS and H1N1 influenza.

The key determinants of health - individually and collectively - are social and economic factors such as housing, income, education, environment and empowerment. First nations, Métis and Inuit communities fare particularly dismally in these essential areas.

Unemployment levels and poverty rates in aboriginal communities are three times higher than in mainstream society. Only 4 per cent of natives have a university education, one quarter the rate in mainstream society. More than one third of aboriginal people in Canada have, in government jargon, a "core housing need," meaning their homes do not meet the most basic standards of acceptability. Overcrowding, lack of running water and inadequate sewage services are the norm in many native communities.

Not to mention that an aboriginal is five times more likely to be murdered than a non-aboriginal Canadian.

The murder of poor (literally and figuratively) aboriginal women is the most extreme manifestation of the price first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples are paying for the abysmal social conditions in which they are trapped.

The murders are also a gruesome symbol of society's indifference to that plight.

Much was made of the fact that virtually all of mass murderer Robert Pickton's victims were sex workers. But rarely did we hear that almost all his victims were young aboriginal women. There is evidence that a serial killer may also be at work in Manitoba, and a single man may also be responsible for the carnage along British Columbia's infamous Highway of Tears. (The Yellowhead Highway, which stretches 750 kilometres from Prince George to Prince Rupert has been the site of nine murders and disappearances since 1990, all but one of the victims young aboriginal women.) But the reality is that the Highway of Tears stretches from sea-to-sea-to-sea in this country: Aboriginal women have been murdered or disappeared by the score in every single province and territory in Canada.

This is not a Manitoba-only problem.

Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, has repeatedly called for a national investigation into this on-going horror.

As she noted, the deaths and disappearances of 520 aboriginal women is the equivalent of 18,000 missing and murdered non-aboriginal women.

Would we stand idly by while a massacre of our daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers unfolded on this scale?

We would not and we should not.

Incomprehensibly, Ms. Jacobs's call for a national investigation has gone unheeded by the federal government. Instead, politicians have contented themselves with funding research into the problem.

A report published earlier this year, entitled Voices of Our Sisters in Spirit, makes for chilling reading, recounting the stories of many murdered and missing aboriginal women. The data therein are as humbling as they are sickening: More than half the murders of aboriginal women remain unsolved.

It's time to go beyond mere cataloguing of the carnage, and to understand the root causes.

In Canada, a death or a disappearance should not be taken less seriously because of the colour of a person's skin.

And Canadians should not tolerate that the horror of these crimes - 520 daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers stolen away from their families, friends and communities - be redoubled by indifference.

Our willful blindness to the plight of aboriginal women is the greatest injustice.

 

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