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Tina Fontaine is seen in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO, Winnipeg Police ServiceHO/The Canadian Press

"We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime." That is how Stephen Harper on Thursday responded to demands for a national inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women. The Prime Minister is at least half right. The death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine surely was a crime.

The latest calls for an inquiry come after Ms. Fontaine's body was pulled from Winnipeg's Red River, found stuffed into a bag: one more native, female homicide victim. From 1980 to 2012, more than 1,000 Canadian aboriginal women were murdered, according to the RCMP. Aboriginals make up 4 per cent of the Canadian population, but 16 per cent of female murder victims, and 12 per cent of missing women.

Ms. Fontaine's death was a crime; the same goes for the entire long list of murdered native women. They are dead because somebody killed them. The Prime Minister is not wrong about that. And once a crime has occurred, it becomes a matter for the justice system: detectives and coroners, forensic scientists and attorneys, judges and jailers. It turns out we're rather good at dealing with these situations once it's too late: The RCMP says the "solve rate" for female aboriginal homicides is nearly 90 per cent, the same as for non-aboriginal victims. That's pretty much the definition of cold comfort.

But the dead should not only be an ex post facto matter. Yes, of course these murders are crimes. But they are not only crimes. To want to dig deeper, and to ask why things like this are happening, month after month, is not to deny individual criminal responsibility. It does not exonerate the perpetrators or diminish the victims. The Prime Minister is wrong: The murder of Tina Fontaine, and the murder of more than 1,000 aboriginal women over three decades, is a sociological phenomenon. And it is an epidemic.

The epidemic raises questions about the government's inaction – but also highlights the delusions of some of the government's harshest critics. Many of those calling for an inquiry seem to imagine that all can be neatly laid at the feet of Ottawa, plus racism, sexism and "colonialism." The government wants to put murderers in the dock, and leave it at that. The critics want to put Ottawa in the dock – and leave it at that. If only truth or solutions were so pat.

Canada's native community, particularly the on-reserve Indian community, is not just suffering from an epidemic of missing and murdered women. It is suffering from an epidemic of criminality, an epidemic of violence, an epidemic of victimization, an epidemic lack of education, an epidemic of joblessness, an epidemic of substance abuse and an epidemic of hopelessness. Before her own disappearance and death, Ms. Fontaine's life was overturned by the murder of her father, who in 2011 was beaten to death on the Sagkeeng First Nation by two fellow community members with whom he had been drinking and taking Tylenol 3 pills. The two men were convicted of manslaughter; they claimed to remember little of the incident.

The justice system addressed the individual crime. It did nothing to alter the course of the epidemic.

Native Canadians make up just 4 per cent of the population, but more than 23 per cent of the inmates in Canada's federal prisons, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator. According to Statistics Canada, the number of aboriginal people in custody is disproportionate from sea to sea to sea. In 2010-2011, 41 per cent of females and 25 per cent of males serving sentences in federal, provincial or territorial custody were native. This despite the fact that judges engage in a kind of affirmative action effort – a step ordered by the Supreme Court – in an attempt to find alternatives to sending aboriginal offenders to prison.

And then there is the dismal state of the education system, particularly on reserves. According to a recent C.D. Howe Institute analysis of Statscan data, 10 per cent of non-aboriginal Canadians aged 20 to 24 have failed to graduate from high school. The rate for Métis Canadians is double that – 20 per cent. For Indians living off reserve, the percentage is even higher: 30 per cent. And for young, on-reserve natives, failing to complete high school is the norm: In 2011, 58 per cent of on-reserve Indians aged 20 to 24 had not graduated from high school. In Manitoba, the worst-performing province, the figure is 70 per cent.

Not surprisingly, that enormous group of undereducated native Canadians is stuck on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Many aren't on the ladder at all. For non-Métis First Nation Canadians without a high school diploma, the employment rate is just 25 per cent – and median annual employment income is just $12,000. Education matters: simply completing high school causes native Canadians' employment rate to double, to over 50 per cent. And among native Canadians with a university degree, nearly 80 per cent are employed.

The federal government, to its credit, tried in one very small way to improve native education with the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. The bill nearly passed earlier this year, but too many chiefs shot it down.

By itself, it could not have ended the epidemic. Not even close. But it was a start. And in the long run, much of the antidote has to come from education – the economic opportunities it brings, and the opportunities it allows individuals and communities to take advantage of. There is no quick magic bullet. There is no quick fix. And blame? There is a lot to go around.

But if we are to identify and address a systemic disaster, our educational failures must be at the centre of the story. Turning that story around offers the best shot for natives, especially those living on reserve, to fully participate in the life of one of the happiest and wealthiest places on Earth, instead of living as many now do, marooned on islands of despair.

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