Skip to main content

Dr. Dawn Harvard, right, of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) looks on as Claudette Dumont-Smith, Executive Director of NWAC answers questions as they take part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, January 12, 2015.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The human-rights arm of the Organization of American States says aboriginal women will continue to account for a disproportionately high number of Canadian murder victims until Canada addresses the root causes of discrimination and social and economic marginalization.

In a report released Monday morning, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) added its voice to those who are calling for a nationwide inquiry into the tragedy of this country's missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

The report of the seven-member panel of the commission marks the first time that an international human rights body has conducted an in-depth investigation of the violence. The panel, none of whose members are Canadian, concluded that the disappearances and murders are part of a broader pattern of discrimination.

In Canada "as elsewhere in the region, indigenous peoples are still not in an equal place in terms of their civil and political rights or, even more fundamentally, their economic, social and cultural rights," said Rose-Marie Antoine, a member of the panel and the IACHR rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

"That is a catalyst for other kinds of vulnerabilities," Dr. Antoine said in a telephone interview from her home in Trinidad. "And when [murders] do happen, they are not investigated with the urgency that other persons would have had, which makes it all the more tragic."

The panel, which focused its attention on the situation in British Columbia, where a large number of the women have gone missing, says members of the Organization of American States are legally obligated to protect the safety of the people within in their jurisdictions.

The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly rejected calls for an inquiry.

But native groups and women's rights organizations said the commission's report, when added to other international voices, including that of the former United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, demonstrate the need for co-ordinated national action.

"These women and girls are being stolen from our families and our communities and it's time that somebody is taking this seriously," Dawn Harvard, the vice-president of Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), told a news conference.

Dr. Harvard said she hoped the federal Conservative government would react positively to the report, or that the findings would be noted around the world and bring further shame on Canada for refusing to call the inquiry.

The commission's panel was asked to investigate the problem of the missing and murdered women by the native women's association and the the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA).

Its study began in March, 2012, two years before the RCMP said in a report last spring that 1,180 aboriginal women and girls were murdered or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012 and that aboriginal women suffer from much greater levels of violence than other women in this country.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for Kellie Leitch, the Minister for the Status of Women, said the government is considering the recommendations of the report but has already addressed the problem of the missing and murdered women with more than 30 criminal justice and public safety initiatives including tougher sentences for murder, sexual assault, and kidnapping.

The commission report, however, says "addressing violence against women is not sufficient unless the underlying factors of discrimination that originate and exacerbate the violence are also addressed."

The premiers of the provinces and territories have supported the call for an inquiry and will meet with aboriginal organizations at a roundtable in Ottawa on Feb. 27 to discuss the issue. The federal government has not said whether it will participate in that event.

Interact with The Globe