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People embrace as they take part in a protest for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls ceremony on Parliament Hill, Oct. 4, 2022 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Ottawa has spent only around 5 per cent of a landmark $724.1-million investment meant to support Indigenous women and children facing gender-based violence, as the fund approaches its third year of operation.

The fund, which began in the 2021-22 fiscal year and was intended to be spent over five years, is largely dedicated to the creation of new shelters and transitional homes.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which controls $420-million of the fund, has selected 18 projects to be built, but has yet to spend any of its portion. Claudie Chabot, a spokesperson for the corporation, said it expects to release the first funds in the coming weeks. CMHC’s portion of the money is meant to support the construction of at least 38 new shelters and 50 transitional homes across Canada.

Indigenous Services Canada, which controls the other $304.1-million, has spent $37.1-million to date. Its portion is dedicated to funding operating costs associated with the new homes and shelters, as well as violence prevention activities.

In an interview, Winnipeg Centre MP Leah Gazan, who is the NDP critic for women and gender equality, called the government’s current pace of spending “unacceptable.”

“We’re in an urgent crisis,” Ms. Gazan said. “This is an emergency. The Prime Minister has identified this crisis as a genocide. We need action now. Every moment we have to wait, it costs lives.”

The fund was announced in fall 2020. In a news release, the government said the money would finance a “comprehensive violence prevention strategy” in response to issues raised in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The intensive three-year inquiry, which released its final report in 2019, repeatedly pointed to the need for safe housing for Indigenous women, girls and families.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his government will turn the inquiry’s 231 calls for justice into “real, meaningful, Indigenous-led action,” advocates have criticized Ottawa’s progress as slow. Ms. Gazan said that gender-based violence has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people at especially high risk.

That risk has been particularly apparent in recent months. In late 2022, the country learned of the murders of four women in Winnipeg: Rebecca Contois, Marcedes Myran and Morgan Harris, who were Indigenous, and a woman whom police have not identified, but who is also believed to have been Indigenous.

Jennifer Cooper, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said that of the $37.1-million the department has spent, $33.2-million has gone to programs and services for Indigenous people facing gender-based violence, and $3.9-million to “initial operational costs.”

“If there are construction delays, operational funds will be rolled over to ensure they do not lapse and remain available,” she said. “Violence prevention funding is distributed amongst communities and organizations and is not impacted by such delays.”

Carol McBride, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said that shelters are incredibly needed, particularly in urban areas. Though the government has made some progress, she said, it’s far from enough.

“I think the government is dragging their feet – to the detriment of our women, our families, our children,” she said. “Our people don’t understand why this is taking so long.”

She added that without other options available, women – and their children – are forced to continue living in violent circumstances, “because they have nowhere else to go.”

“If these people, these decision makers, if it was their families involved, I think they would make decisions a lot faster,” she said, adding that all parties need to move more quickly.

Assembly of First Nations Manitoba Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse said that in November, 2022, the assembly requested a detailed summary of government spending on a national action plan created to respond to the calls for justice.

The AFN has not received those details, Ms. Woodhouse said. She added that the assembly is “deeply disappointed” in the government’s progress to date.

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