Police have compiled nearly 1,200 cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada over the past 30 years – a number that is three to four times higher than their average representation in the country.
The federal government is resisting pressure to call an inquiry into the situation, but the new numbers – compiled by the RCMP in collaboration with police bodies from coast to coast – provide a startling picture of violence among a vulnerable segment of Canadian society. The numbers are higher than previous figures compiled by academics in recent years, including one much-quoted study that documented 824 cases of murdered or missing women going back to the 1940s.
"Yes, it was a surprise," RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said as he revealed the final numbers after speaking to a parliamentary committee. "What we can say is that there is a misrepresentation, or overrepresentation, within the aboriginal community of missing and murdered women. There are 4 per cent aboriginal women in Canada – I think there are 16 per cent of the murdered women who are aboriginal, 12 per cent of the missing women are aboriginal," he said.
Commissioner Paulson said there are 160 cases of missing aboriginal women in Canada; foul play is suspected in two-thirds of those cases, while the other third are missing for unknown reasons. This means that about 1,000 aboriginal women have been murdered in Canada over the past three decades, a situation that has spurred a series of calls for an inquiry.
"This crisis has gone on for far too long," NDP MP Niki Ashton said in the House on Thursday. "Families want closure. They want justice. They want to be heard, and they want action from the government. When will the federal government call a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women?"
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney once again rejected the calls on behalf of the government, saying it was time for action, not further studies.
"I will stand in this House and support a $25-million strategy for aboriginal missing and murdered women. …Why is the member not doing the right thing and supporting budget 2014?" he said.
Commissioner Paulson said that the final report on the matter will be provided to all Canadians in coming weeks, stating a complete picture is the first step in helping aboriginal women.
"What is important is that we get a firm understanding of what is going on, and that is what we're on the verge of doing," he said. "I'm not the guy to ask about inquiries. I'm the guy to ask about the facts, and we are going to give you the facts."
Still, he defended the handling of the cases by police forces across Canada, rejecting allegations that investigations into aboriginal women are treated less seriously than other cases.
"They haven't been under-investigated, they haven't been improperly investigated. Clearly, there are some underlying issues as to why there would be such a misrepresentation," he said.
Claudette Dumont-Smith, the executive director of Native Women's Association of Canada, has said an inquiry would study every angle of the problem in a way that has not been done before, and could compel people who have important information to testify.
"Right now what's happening is that everything is piecemeal," Ms. Dumont-Smith said last March after the release of a parliamentary committee report into the matter.
The official committee report, supported by Conservative MPs, recommended a public-awareness campaign, support for the families of victims, support for aboriginal communities, better police data and action to reduce human trafficking.
Opposition MPs on the committee, however, dismissed the document as a whitewash. The New Democrats and the Liberals both issued dissenting reports calling for a national public inquiry, a move supported by aboriginal leaders.
"The special committee on ending violence against indigenous women heard emotional, powerful and constructive testimony, and yet it's clear those voices were not heard," said Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
With a report from Steven Chase