Angelique EagleWoman is dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ont.
Loss of indigenous women is the loss of mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and wisdom-keepers. All women in Canada should have the right to feel safe from sexual violence and being murdered when they are socializing or walking down the street.
As Canada confronts this contemporary issue of protecting indigenous women, other countries around the globe are grappling with the same challenge. In 2007, Amnesty International released a report ("Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA") which led to U.S. federal laws allowing for prosecution of domestic violence perpetrators against indigenous peoples in tribal courts.
In 2014, James Anaya, then the UN's special rapporteur for indigenous peoples, in his report on Canada noted that during his visit, he heard "consistent, insistent calls across the country for a comprehensive, nationwide inquiry, organized in consultation with indigenous peoples, that could provide an opportunity for the voices of the victims' families to be heard, deepen understanding of the magnitude and systemic dimensions of the issue, and identify best practices that could lead to an adequately co-ordinated response."
With the launch of the missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry, Canada has taken an all-of-government approach that intersects with child welfare, justice, reconciliation and the self-determination of indigenous peoples.
The five commissioners appointed for the inquiry were well-vetted and chosen because of their acumen as indigenous representatives. The goal is systemic change, starting with immediate actions, such as more funding to support indigenous women in domestic violence situations and providing safe transportation. This inquiry, which has been called for over the past 25 or more years, is a major step forward for all Canadians, showing that the process has now begun.
For it to succeed, all Canadians must support this effort through listening, understanding, and showing compassion for the survivors, for the families suffering loss, for those who were disregarded when they went to police and reported a missing indigenous woman only to be told "she will probably turn up." With the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action in the wake of the trauma of Indian residential schools, shifts are happening in Canada's general population and educational institutions. Historically, indigenous peoples have endured the loss of territory, language, culture, and children. The loss of indigenous women is a current, contemporary issue and must be addressed now.
There is a famous Cheyenne nation saying: "A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished no matter how brave its warriors or how strong their weapons." For the survival of indigenous peoples, women are carriers of life and have the first responsibility for teaching the culture to the young ones. It is devastating to lose even one indigenous woman, let alone the hundreds that have been lost to date.
In the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article II defines genocide as " … any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
The possibility of the loss of life, bodily harm and sexual violence that exists for indigenous women in Canada is unacceptable in a contemporary society valuing justice, freedom and equality.
As the inquiry gets under way, communities must engage in truth-telling and asking the difficult questions. All Canadians will benefit from measures implemented to protect the vulnerable population of indigenous women by knowing that they are participants in creating healing for those who have lost a relative, and ending the practices of negligence that led to the current crisis.
As the commissioners take on this task until December, 2018, they will provide recommendations for systemic change. At a minimum, law enforcement procedures must be more responsive with timely investigations and arrests. Judicial systems must punish wrongdoers and send the message that indigenous women's lives and well-being matter. This is the important work that lies ahead for Canada. Through this work, the lives of those who are gone will be acknowledged and honoured.