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jeffrey simpson

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley wants a public inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women. So do all the other provincial premiers. So do the opposition parties in Ottawa. So, naturally, do all the national aboriginal organizations.

They are wrong.

The problem of murdered and missing aboriginal women is unquestionably serious. A public inquiry, however, would be the least effective remedy.

Public inquiries, as has often been shown, work best when they investigate an incident such as the fatal E.coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000; the 1971 prison riot in Kingston; the Vancouver street riots during the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs; the death of Polish citizen Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport in 2007.

These were specific events, not what the murdered and missing aboriginal women challenge is all about. These tragedies stretch back a long way. They have been tracked by the RCMP since 1980, and in particular after 1991, when Statistics Canada began collecting data on homicides in census metropolitan areas.

Examining hundreds of cases – stretching over three and a half decades, about 80 per cent of which have been solved by the RCMP – would be way beyond the capacity of a public inquiry. It would soon founder on the sheer weight of what those who are demanding one want, which is not to review criminal investigations, but to explore the underlying causes of the violence.

Those causes are economic, sociological, political, attitudinal, institutional – in other words, vast in scope and complicated in analysis, way beyond the scope of a public inquiry.

What any investigation of the problem would uncover, in part, is known to every first-year student of sociology or criminology: that women, aboriginal or non-aboriginal, are killed or assaulted disproportionately by those with whom they live or are in relationships. We hardly need a public inquiry to uncover this well-established fact.

The RCMP, which has been doing excellent work in providing detailed overviews of the problem in 2014 and again recently, reported that "violence within family relationships is a key factor in homicides of women." Elsewhere, the recent RCMP report said, "most homicide victims had a previous relationship with the offender … the offender was known to the victim in 100 per cent of the solved homicides of aboriginal women in RCMP jurisdictions, and in 93 per cent of cases of solved homicides of non-aboriginal women."

Some months ago, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt blurted out a truth for which he was roundly condemned: that more than 70 per cent of the cases involved assaults by aboriginal men against aboriginal women. The RCMP report again proves the minister was right, although he might have underestimated the share. Plain speaking in public, however, runs the risk in such matters of being politically incorrect.

Aboriginal groups, including the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations, keep demanding a public inquiry. What they should be doing, especially the AFN, is demanding a meeting of aboriginal chiefs and other aboriginal leaders to discuss what is going on in their communities that has led to the murdered and the missing. What can they, as aboriginal leaders, do about this? After all, the violence is disproportionately happening in their communities, under their watch, among their people.

Instead, the usual propensity, seen in the AFN's reaction to the recent RCMP report, is to blame governments and to "demand action" from them. "The numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women cannot remain a mere statistic," said AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde. "It's time for action that shows the lives of indigenous women and girls matter."

Chief Bellegarde is right about "action," but one searches in vain in the rest of the AFN's response for what the organization and its members propose to do about the problem, beyond holding another "national roundtable."

To suggest that "action" by national aboriginal leaders take place beyond calling for governments to take "action" is not to minimize the fact that the murders and disappearances of aboriginal women are awful tragedies and that, numerically, they are overrepresented among female homicides and disappearances in the general population.

The roots of the problem run very deep. Some extend well beyond aboriginal populations, for there is violence against women across Canadian society. There are obvious policies and steps that governments could take to respond better to the problem of murdered and missing aboriginal women. A public inquiry isn't one of them.

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