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The Globe and Mail

We can’t wait another decade to end violence against native women

Beverley Jacobs was the lead researcher on Amnesty International's Stolen Sisters report and a former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada. Alex Neve is the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.

Ten years ago, when Amnesty International released its first research report on the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women in Canada, we stood alongside family members who asked, 'how many more sisters and daughters do we have to lose before governments take real and meaningful action?'

We never imagined that this heartfelt plea for justice, dignity and human rights would be met by such appalling government indifference.

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When Amnesty International released the Stolen Sisters report in October, 2004, the Native Women's Association of Canada had already been campaigning to focus attention on the uncounted hundreds of indigenous women and girls who had been murdered or gone missing in Canada.

We now know, from recently released RCMP statistics, that in the decade that followed the release of the Stolen Sisters report, dozens more indigenous women and girls were murdered every year, with more than 105 remaining missing under suspicious circumstances or for undetermined reasons. Due to significant gaps in police reporting, it's also clear that many more deaths and disappearances are likely absent from RCMP figures.

Such widespread and pervasive violence demands a comprehensive national response, aimed not just at bringing the perpetrators to justice, but also at preventing this violence in the first place. This has not happened. In mid-September, the federal government announced what it claimed was an "action plan" to address violence against Indigenous women. It was really only a re-announcement of existing programs and initiatives best described as piecemeal and inadequate.

Looking back on the last decade, we are heartened by the growing demand for real action to stop violence against indigenous women. The annual Oct. 4 Sisters in Spirit vigils have become a nation-wide movement for human rights and justice embraced by indigenous and non-indigenous people alike. Momentum is clearly building.

At the same time, we are deeply concerned by the partisan nature of so much of the public debate. All too frequently, those who want to defend the government's record distort the facts, reducing complex issues to a simple call to catch and punish the perpetrators. An ugly undertone has emerged that blames indigenous communities or the victims themselves.

Over and over again we're told that almost all murders of indigenous women were carried out by someone known to the victim. This, in fact, is true of all violence against women, indigenous and non-indigenous alike. There are, however, striking differences that Canadians must understand and confront if this violence is ever going to be stopped.

Indigenous women and girls are approximately 3.5 times more likely than non-indigenous women to be murdered by a spouse, former partner or a family member. Family violence is a horrendous reality requiring greater acknowledge and much greater efforts to address. But it's not the entire story.

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RCMP statistics show that indigenous women and girls are roughly seven times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be killed by an "acquaintance," such as a friend, a co-worker, a neighbour or an authority figure. Government programs and policies have largely failed to acknowledge or come to terms with this important dimension of the threats to indigenous women's lives.

Violence against indigenous women takes place in the home and in the streets of Canadian cities. Attacks on indigenous women are committed by indigenous men and non-indigenous men and these men are often helped by others, who aid them in their crimes or help cover up the truth.

In other words, violence against indigenous women is complex and multi-faceted. It has to be understood in the context of centuries of dispossession, marginalization and impoverishment of indigenous women, their families and their communities; as well as the ongoing paternalistic relationship between indigenous peoples and the Canadian state.

Over-simplification of these issues may serve a political agenda, but it does not serve the women and girls whose lives are at risk.

International human rights standards require governments to take every reasonable effort to prevent violence against women. Governments that fail to do so bear responsibility for some of the suffering and loss that they could have prevented.

In our view, two broad measures are needed to fulfil this responsibility: a truly comprehensive and co-ordinated national action plan and an independent public inquiry to ensure that government responses are based on indigenous women's real needs.

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There is unprecedented agreement that these are steps to be taken, including among Canadian premiers, human rights commissions, UN experts and many of our closest allies. These measures cannot be put off any longer. Not when the lives of so many women and girls are at stake.

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