Joseph Quesnel and Steve Lafleur are public policy analysts with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Two recent deaths in Manitoba have once again pushed the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women into the political sphere. The government, up to now, has treated the issue as a matter of law enforcement. However, there are deeper issues and social trends that need to be addressed. It is time for a public inquiry.
Some worry that calling a public inquiry into the issue would merely be an academic exercise that would delay concrete action. That viewpoint is mistaken. Most Canadians cannot relate to the circumstances facing women on First Nations reserves. An inquiry would educate Canadians about the challenges, and could help force politicians to address the issue, rather than letting it fester. Until we take concrete action, including a public inquiry, missing and murdered aboriginal women will continue to be occasional blips on the political radar screen. Action and education need to go hand in hand to prevent the issue from slipping off the agenda.
This past May, the RCMP released a report that said almost 1,200 Aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered over the last three decades. While skeptics are right to point out that 90 per cent of these crimes are solved, and that the ratio of male-to-female violence inflicted on aboriginals is the same as in the broader public, the rates of violence facing aboriginal people in general are much higher than for the broader public, even though the rates are falling.
Aboriginal women clearly face different challenges than most – particularly those living on reserves. These challenges are especially daunting for women who don't have a safe place to live. Women living with domestic abuse and young adults living in abusive households on reserves live a particularly precarious life compared to their urban counterparts. They often have to flee to the nearest city to find safe shelter. It is especially difficult coming from remote reserves without inter-city bus service. Many end up hitchhiking, which is how many of them end up missing. Often those who do make it to the city anticipate staying with a friend or family member, but in many cases those connections don't work out and they end up on the street. A quick walk around downtown Winnipeg provides ample evidence.
What really is needed is not just an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, but a broader public inquiry into how to empower the First Nations community, and women in particular. Such an inquiry should look at how First Nation community life and governance is contributing to the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women.
First Nation women on reserves face unique obstacles that need to be explored. Some of these were highlighted by a 2010 poll commissioned by the Frontier Centre of 1,000 adults on-reserve on 78 First Nations in the Prairie provinces.
A troubling number of respondents did not believe their band government was doing enough to combat violence against women. Moreover, women reported feeling vulnerable on reserve and having little say in decision making by chief and council.
This wider public inquiry should explore a broad array of issues such as how to help women and youth who need to escape abusive situations, how to ensure that women on reserves have proper access to necessities such as contraception and birth control, and broader issues that contribute to the marginalization of First Nations people on and off reserves.
Some will argue that policy makers already understand the challenges facing First Nations people, and that an inquiry will merely delay implementing proven policy options. Even assuming policy makers do understand these challenges – which, frankly seems unlikely – politicians tend to be more reactive than proactive. A public inquiry would force First Nations issues to the forefront, which would both educate and motivate the electorate to support moving on solutions. That would in turn motivate politicians to make these issues a priority.