The federal government will give itself two months to figure out how to organize an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. They will need every hour of that period to avoid the inquiry being a waste of time and money, which it is very likely to be.
The very word "inquiry" suggests initial trouble, or a lack of understanding of what inquiries can accomplish.
Under the Public Inquiry Act, investigations – usually presided over by a judge – look into specific events: a prison riot, the death of someone in police custody, tainted water. These inquiries are not equipped to examine long stretches of history through many episodes, let alone explore the underlying sociological, economic and financial factors that caused things to go wrong.
Those who want an inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women are asking for something completely ill-suited to a traditional public inquiry. They want light to be shed, beyond the extensive light already shed, on the deaths and disappearances of aboriginal women stretching back to 1980, or three and a half decades.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Assembly of First Nations this week that the murdered and missing aboriginal women "deserve justice." What could that evocative phrase possible mean in practice? That the police and courts failed, so cases should be reopened and retried so that "justice" would be done? If he thinks that, the Prime Minister should say the police and courts systematically bungled.
But that isn't likely what Mr. Trudeau meant, although what he did mean must perforce be conjecture. What he possibly meant was that families should be able to tell their stories, to ease their understandable pain and to draw attention to their loved ones' deaths or disappearances. If so, it would not be "justice" but psychology.
So if an inquiry is absolutely the wrong vehicle, what else might there be? Surely not another study, not after the royal commission established by the government under Brian Mulroney, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that recently reported, the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry under former B.C. attorney-general Wally Oppal, the RCMP's very thorough investigation of the deaths and disappearances and the extensive data provided by Statistics Canada. There's a ton of information in these and other reports.
Another commission – call it what you want – could not review police investigations. It could not reopen this or that case. It could not collect much data of any significance that has escaped the RCMP and Statistics Canada.
It could tell us what is obvious for aboriginal and non-aboriginal women alike: that they are assaulted and/or killed disproportionately by men with whom they live or are in relationships.
Every student of first-year criminology learns this sad but indisputable fact. We hardly need a public inquiry or whatever to repeat this well-known fact, which leads inevitably to the painful but not surprising conclusion that most aboriginal women are murdered or disappear at the hands of aboriginal men. By no means all, but most.
We also know that by concentrating on violence against women, we are focusing on one part of a wider and tragic phenomenon. Aboriginal men, according to Statistics Canada, are three times as likely to be killed as aboriginal women. Both aboriginal men and women, as a percentage of the total Canadian population, are likely to be killed much more frequently than non-aboriginal people.
This violence, against women and men, flows from a variety of circumstances, some of which might have to do with policing failures but most of which relate to the history and present situation of aboriginal communities in Canada.
Some of the antidotes to this violence can come from outside the communities – from better government policies and more funding – but some has to come from within the communities themselves. Facing facts means more than complaining endlessly about government policies; it means leaders taking action in their own communities.
It is hard to find solutions to the social and economic factors that lead to breakdowns of relations within communities with small populations, often removed from mainstream society, divided from other aboriginal communities, with little or no own-source revenues and scant likelihood of attaining them, which is the situation of too many aboriginal communities in Canada.
We hardly need an inquiry or another commission to review this reality.