Benjamin Perrin is a law professor at the University of British Columbia, senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy and chair of the Justice for Victims of Crime Working Group. He is former special adviser for legal affairs and policy in the Prime Minister's Office.
Imagine having a baby, knowing that the infant is seven times more likely to be the victim of a violent murder than the average Canadian newborn. That's been the tragic reality of aboriginal girls in our country, as painted by Statistics Canada over the years.
Last week, the RCMP revealed that the situation is far worse than feared – by the force's count, the number of police-reported missing and murdered aboriginal women is double what was previously thought. This comprehensive RCMP study surveyed police forces across Canada. It found that between 1980 and 2012, there were 1,181 missing and murdered aboriginal females (164 are missing, 1,017 were homicide victims); 225 of these cases remain unsolved.
To put these figures in context, while aboriginal women represent just 4.3 per cent of the female population in Canada, they account for 11.3 per cent of the total number of missing women. Even more alarming, the RCMP found that 16 per cent of all homicides in Canada are perpetrated against aboriginal females – a "significant overrepresentation." While total homicide rates have been declining in recent decades, the trend for aboriginal women is not so good.
How should we respond to this crisis?
No doubt, the RCMP's report will spur renewed calls by some for a national inquiry. Unfortunately, an inquiry would be the quickest route to the slowest response. The tens of millions of dollars it would cost would go to lawyers (I say this as a member of the bar) and it would be very odd if the findings departed markedly from those reached recently by B.C.'s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry or the numerous studies at the national and provincial/territorial levels that have already been completed. In my experience researching the related issue of human trafficking and prostitution, affected aboriginal communities are more interested in action than more talk.
So what should be done?
First, the RCMP wants to solve these cases and refocus its prevention efforts – we need to hear the same commitment from local police across Canada, especially in areas that the data show are most deeply affected. These are real crimes, and they are widespread. Our police forces need to reallocate resources to meet this urgent need and, if required, seek further funding from relevant governments. We also need to hear back regularly from the RCMP on progress and challenges to solving these cases and stemming the tide.
Second, a national action plan that involves the federal government, provincial and territorial governments, police, non-governmental organizations on the ground and aboriginal communities is needed to enhance and better co-ordinate prevention efforts that focus on potential victims, as well as potential offenders. While some meaningful action has been taken in recent years by the federal government and some provincial governments (notably Manitoba), little of it gets reported in the media. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has committed to assisting victims of crime – the plight of aboriginal women and girls calls out for greater action.
Third, we need to reform the Criminal Code with this new data in hand. The RCMP highlighted the particular vulnerability of aboriginal women and girls involved in prostitution. A legislative response to the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in the Bedford case, which declared several prostitution-related offences unconstitutional, is expected soon.
Legalized/decriminalized prostitution is opposed by many aboriginal women's groups and would only make things worse. Aboriginal women need support to exit prostitution and should not be criminalized – instead, johns, pimps and traffickers need to be punished. As an aboriginal leader once pointed out to me, there's no word for "prostitution" in her traditional language – it's not the "oldest profession" but was brought here by European settlers.
The federal government should also amend the so-called Gladue principle, whereby all aboriginal offenders are given special treatment at sentencing. While the concept is directed at the serious problem of overrepresentation of aboriginal offenders in jail, it ignores the fact that the victims of these offenders are often aboriginal, too.
Judges need to be made aware of this RCMP data, particularly the fact that fully 90 per cent of missing and murdered aboriginal women knew their perpetrator (e.g. spouses, family members and acquaintances) and that most of these offenders had criminal records involving prior acts of violence against their victims. Aboriginal women may well be paying the price for leniency with violent aboriginal offenders – in some cases, with their lives. The Gladue principle should be disallowed in all cases involving crimes of a violent nature, particularly for repeat offenders. Addressing the aboriginal incarceration issue needs a different response for these individuals.
The RCMP admits to being "surprised" by the findings of this new study, but has promised further action. That's a good first start. But the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls is an appalling national disgrace. It requires an urgent response because it really is a last chance for First Nations women and girls.