The first of three international delegations coming to Canada this year to investigate the treatment of First Nations people has been hearing harrowing tales about women who vanished along British Columbia's infamous Highway of Tears.
Native advocacy groups say 30 aboriginal women have vanished along the desolate stretch of highway in northern B.C. since the 1970s, and they point to the incidents as symptomatic of a larger national problem.
"Well, that's one of the reasons to come, to hear firsthand the experiences of those who have been through this experience, who have lost their mothers, their daughters, their aunts, their sisters," Dinah Shelton, of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said Thursday during a break in hearings in Prince George.
"These are very difficult stories to hear. And we are taking this hearing seriously. I know the government is as well," said Ms. Shelton, a U.S. law professor who is one of seven commissioners elected to the IACHR by the general assembly of the Organization of American States.
Ms. Shelton, who is investigating the issue along with another IACHR commissioner, Tracy Robinson, a lawyer from Jamaica, said in addition to speaking with the families of victims they have held meetings with federal and provincial government officials, the RCMP and native organizations.
"There has been extraordinary co-operation. We've been able to go everywhere and talk to everyone we have wanted to meet with," said Ms. Shelton, whose organization last year sought and received permission from Ottawa to investigate allegations of human-rights abuses in Canada.
"We were in Ottawa. We were in Vancouver yesterday. Today we are in Prince George. We're going back to Vancouver tomorrow and then we will hold a final conversation with the federal government," said Ms. Shelton, who promised a report by November.
A recent study by the Native Women's Association of Canada found that more than 600 aboriginal women and girls have disappeared or been murdered in Canada in the past 30 years. In a briefing paper to the IACHR last year, the association and two other groups claimed the human rights of native people are being violated because governments "have failed in their obligation to exercise due diligence to adequately prevent violence against aboriginal women and girls."
Native leaders are hoping the visit by the IACHR, and upcoming investigations by two United Nations groups (the special rapporteur on the right of indigenous people and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) will lead to a national public inquiry.
"Up here, or in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Winnipeg, or Edmonton, the common thread is there are a lot of aboriginal women who are the victims of violence," said Tribal Chief Terry Teegee of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. "What we'd like to see come out of this [flurry of international investigations] is a national inquiry into the problem."
Claudette Dumont-Smith, executive director of the Native Women's Association of Canada, agreed. "I think the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is going to shed new light on this," she said. "They are looking at it through a very different lens and I think they may be able to convince the federal and provincial governments, and the police, that there has to be a different approach to address this issue."