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Liberal Health Critic, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, holds a media availability to discuss the Liberal Party's call for an emergency debate on H1N1 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ont., Monday November 2, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, emerged from a cabinet meeting last Thursday declaring that Canadians should stop blaming the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women on First Nations people themselves.

Ms. Bennett may very well be right, or at least partly right, but, as the person who is arranging the public inquiry on that highly important topic, she should not be prejudging answers to the questions that the inquiry will delve into.

To be sure, the Liberal government's attitude so far is already a step forward. Stephen Harper, the former Conservative prime minister, said more than a year ago about MMIW, "We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as a crime." Why on Earth should we think that social phenomena and criminal acts are mutually exclusive? On the contrary, they are often deeply entangled with each other.

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But Ms. Bennett's words risk being interpreted to mean that indigenous people should be exempted from responsibility for violence toward indigenous women, just because a great many indigenous men have also suffered in manifold ways.

Rather, for the inquiry's purposes, the whole discourse of collective blame or exemption from such blame is nebulous at best, useless at worst. Instead, this inquiry should do its best to understand the many dimensions of this grim problem in Canadian society and its complex causes, and to look for ways, first to alleviate it, and eventually to end it.

The RCMP and other police forces can assemble data on these terrible ills in their criminal aspects, but it is not their business to analyze and synthesize the wider phenomena (the ones that Mr. Harper apparently doesn't believe in).

Ms. Bennett, her department and her staff should be helping formulate the questions that the inquiry should deal with, rather than superfluously and prematurely answering them.

Undoubtedly, residential schools severely damaged indigenous family life in much of Canada, and it could not easily be put back together again. Let's hope that the inquiry will bring new ideas to these tormenting problems – without too much of the all too familiar rhetoric.

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