Tuesday featured two big announcements from Ottawa regarding Canada's First Nations. The start of a consultation process to create an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women received the most attention. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's five-point plan to reset the relationship with native Canada is the larger story. That's because the MMIW issue, important as it is, cannot be seen in isolation. It grows out of something bigger and deeper.
When Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was asked what the goal of the inquiry would be, she mentioned preventing a repetition of the tragedies it is to investigate. But that outcome is not attainable unless the depressing state of aboriginal Canada, which is in almost every way worse off than the rest of Canada, is somehow improved. That's a challenge for the federal government, but also for native leaders and communities. There is a lot of blame to go around, and a lot of responsibility too.
The new government in Ottawa is not the first to dream of a better tomorrow for Canada's First Nations. Good intentions matter, but they are not enough.
The phenomenon of indigenous women who have gone missing and been murdered is a tragedy that has to be investigated, understood and addressed. In 2014, an aboriginal woman was six times as likely to be murdered as a non-aboriginal woman. That disparity has been growing for a generation. As the murder rate for the wider population has fallen, the number of aboriginal women who are victims of homicide has flatlined.
However, the misery gap is not something exclusively felt by native women. According to recently released figures from Statistics Canada, an aboriginal man is three times as likely to be murdered as an aboriginal woman. That same native man is seven times as likely to be a homicide victim as a non-native male, and 16 times as likely as a non-native female. Statscan also found that 31 per cent of men accused of homicide in 2014 were aboriginal, as were 51 per cent of female accused.
Stephen Harper once said that the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women was a criminal matter to be dealt with by police and courts – and he was partly right. But he seemed to want to close the book and stop the discussion there, which was entirely wrong. This is not just a criminal matter. It is a sociological phenomenon. And the sociological condition of native Canada, its glum indicators and health, wealth and happiness in the midst of one of the healthiest, wealthiest and safest countries on Earth, are the markers of this country's misery gap.
For example, the Indigenous and Northern Affairs ministry website notes that the unemployment rate for aboriginal Canadians, at 13 per cent in 2011, is roughly double that for other Canadians. For status Indians of working age, the unemployment rate was 17 per cent. For on-reserve Indians: 22 per cent.
We raise these statistics not to point the finger of blame at anyone, native or non-native. No one wants such an outcome. But it is Canada's reality, connected to all sorts of other problems. It has to be faced and it has to be fixed.
Or consider the state of educational attainment among native Canadians. In 2011, according to a C.D. Howe Institute analysis, only 10 per cent of Canadians aged 20 to 24 lacked a high school graduation certificate. But that figure rises to 41 per cent for First Nations Canadians of the same age, and an astonishing 58 per cent for young adult status Indians who live on a reserve. In Manitoba, 70 per cent of young 20-somethings living on a reserve have not completed high school.
To point this out is not to blame anyone, least of all the victims of poor schooling, poor labour markets or crime. But unless Canada and native communities can work together to significantly improve educational and economic results, it will be extremely difficult to address the other parts of the yawning misery gap – including the wide crime gap.
Prime Minister Trudeau said on Tuesday that his government would move immediately on five promises made during the election. In addition to launching the inquiry into missing and murdered women, he said he would make major new investments in native education, lift the 2 per cent cap on growth in funding for First Nations programs, implement all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconcilation Commission, and rescind lots of legislation passed by the previous government.
These steps will make many native leaders happy. The new PM is promising more money, autonomy and respect. It certainly does reset the relationship between official Ottawa and official native Canada, and that could turn out to be a very good thing. But it is not necessarily the same thing as resetting the conditions of life for average native Canadians.