Skip to main content

Barbara Bailey, vice-chair of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, speaks during a news conference on the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, Feb. 1, 2016 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The federal government should not study the alarming rate of violence against aboriginal men as part of its upcoming national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women, international human-rights experts caution, saying that doing so would confuse the issue.

Speaking at a news conference in Ottawa on Monday, the vice-chair of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said the plight of indigenous women and girls is distinct and should be treated as such. "If we attempt to combine, it's going to really … muddy the waters," said Barbara Bailey, who was on the UN team that visited Canada in 2013 to investigate the violence. "I think to detract now would really be a tragedy. Let's fix that problem first and then we can begin to see what else is out there."

Aboriginal people are six times more likely than non-aboriginal people to be homicide victims, according to Statistics Canada data released in the fall. The disproportionality is even more pronounced among indigenous men. That reality has led to some difficult questions about why the public inquiry is slated to focus on women, especially since many of the oft-cited underlying social ills – colonialism, the legacy of the Indian residential school system, addiction, unemployment, poor housing, poverty and racism – affect aboriginal men and women alike.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told The Globe and Mail in November that the inquiry will centre on women because of the "tremendous call and consensus" to do so. "Our mandate now is to get to the bottom of the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada," she said. "The issues around sexism are specific." She also said she believes all aboriginal people will benefit from the inquiry. In an e-mail Monday, a spokeswoman for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada reiterated that there has been a "specific and ongoing" plea from domestic and international bodies to address the crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

The Liberal government has promised to launch the probe by summer and has pledged, in the meantime, to listen to victims' families and indigenous organizations about the design of the inquiry – including its scope. According to summaries of seven consultation sessions posted to a government website, the desire to dedicate some attention to violence against indigenous men and boys has come up at four of the meetings.

"It's a really hard conversation to have," said Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada. She believes the inquiry should specifically address women because they experience the "double discrimination" that comes with being indigenous and female. "Absolutely [men] deserve the same amount of attention, just not necessarily in the same forum," she said, adding that the inquiry must examine sexual violence and exploitation.

Ms. Bailey and other representatives from the UN and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights were in Ottawa for a weekend symposium on missing and murdered aboriginal women. They also met with the ministers of justice, indigenous affairs and status of women to discuss the inquiry. James Cavallarro, president of the IACHR, agreed the inquiry should focus on women, in part because its commissioners could look to several existing studies on that issue as a starting point.

The experts spoke from Parliament Hill the morning after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a victim's relative during a CBC forum that "indigenous lives matter." Asked about racism within the RCMP, Mr. Trudeau said "there are big changes to make, institutionally, right across the board – the RCMP is part of it, but the culture of politics and government is a big part of it as well."