Aboriginal women make up just four per cent of Canada's female population, but they represent 16 per cent of female homicide victims and 12 per cent of missing women. The numbers, recently revealed by RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, are appalling, triggering anger and concern. Why do aboriginal women face a higher risk of violence than other women? In the absence of any easy answers, there have been many calls – including one from this newspaper – for a public inquiry.
Public inquiries have delved into everything from the future of health care to the horrific treatment of Maher Arar. In essence, a public inquiry is a government-ordered review of public events or issues of concern. They are meant to lay down the facts, discover the causes and generate recommendations for reform.
When it comes to missing and murdered aboriginal women, an inquiry would be useful in a very narrow sense. It could determine whether police negligence or misconduct played any role in generating those outrageously high numbers. It could probe whether the rate of unsolved murders of aboriginal women is, in fact, higher. (The RCMP says it isn't.) It could examine whether the federal government and native governments are doing enough to address disproportionate levels of violence against aboriginal women. According to the RCMP, two-thirds of native women murdered since 1980 were killed by a spouse, family member or other intimate.
But many fundamental issues would fall outside an inquiry's scope. The high numbers of missing and murdered aboriginal women may speak to the particular vulnerability of all native Canadians. And that may be bound up in all the other sad facts afflicting them to a much greater degree than the rest of the population: higher levels of joblessness, lower levels of education, higher levels of criminality and incarceration.
A public inquiry focused on the narrow topic of missing and murdered native women would be very useful. But on the broader issues underlying the much larger problem, Canadians don't need another inquiry to understand the urgency of aboriginal peoples' current plight. What's really needed is action.