Missing, murdered women remains open file

Amnesty International joins call for action

THUNDER BAY—The federal government continues to balk at calls for an independent inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, even as a roundtable on the issue was held in Ottawa on Friday, February 27. Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and Minister of State for the Status of Women Kellie Leitch joined the provincial and aboriginal members of the roundtable as they met in closed session to hear from the families and friends of the missing and murdered women.

“An inquiry will enable stakeholders to identify systemic issues—racism, poverty and intergenerational abuse—with respect to violence against women,” said Anishinabek Nation (UOI) Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee. “The Harper government just refuses to recognize anything that is going on with indigenous peoples. We need an inquiry now. We cannot allow this to continue. Families and friends of indigenous women and girls of the missing-murdered need answers. Our communities need healing and Canadian society needs to wake up.”

A three-day conference hosted by the Chiefs of Ontario in Thunder Bay earlier in February also heard from the families of the missing and murdered. “It is a very difficult thing to hear,” said Chiefs of Ontario women’s caucus co-chair UOI Deputy Chief Glen Hare. Chief Hare is co-chair of the committee with Deputy Grand Chief Denise Stonefish of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians. “As hard as it is, we need to hear these stories,” continued Chief Hare. “We want to help, but we can’t help if we don’t know.” Chief Hare urged those with stories of the missing and murdered women to come forward and contact the UOI lead on the file, Karen Restoule. “She will help you to connect with me and the committee.” Chief Hare noted the committee will be meeting again in March.

The federal reaction to the issue left little satisfaction.

“In an effort to denounce and prevent violence, and because we believe that men and boys, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, must be part of the solution, we are supporting community-driven projects to engage men and boys,” Minister Valcourt told the roundtable.

Both Ministers Leitch and Valcourt said they believe the solution to the violence rests largely with changing the behaviours and attitudes of men on reserves, who they say are most often the perpetrators of the crimes. That angered some indigenous leaders who say the issue is much broader than one of family violence.

Amnesty International Canada was also quick to condemn the federal stance, issuing a statement that reads “Minister Leitch’s framing of the issue is incorrect and dangerous. And it points once again to the increasingly urgent need for an independent public inquiry to ensure that the policies and programs that make up a national action plan on violence against women are based on a clear, unbiased understanding of the issues and help hold government accountable for acting on the recommendations brought forward by affected families, communities and indigenous peoples’ organizations.”

The Amnesty International statement goes on to read, “Indigenous women’s organizations and human rights groups have long said that the shocking levels of violence faced by First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls requires nothing less than a comprehensive, coordinated national response to ensure effective, unbiased police investigations, to support the families of those who have been murdered or gone missing, and to address the factors putting indigenous women in harm’s way in the first place. The roundtable does not change this call to action. Anything less than a comprehensive national response, informed by an independent public inquiry, is a failure to indigenous women and girls.”

As part of the Thunder Bay conference, the staff at the UOI created a Blanket of Hope, which travelled to the conference with the UOI leadership. The blanket features one earring of a pair pinned to a pink Pendleton blanket. “The earrings represent women all over, and other women and people can relate to that,” said Jody Cotter, one of the organizers of the project. The blanket bears 1,181 single earrings and will be housed at the UOI offices in North Bay. “Women especially relate to the feeling of loss when one earring in a favourite pair goes missing, said Ms. Cotter.

Islanders Jan McQuay and Paula Corbiere coordinated a local effort on the Blanket of Hope, gathering more than 39 earrings to add to the blanket when it recently visited the Island at UCCMM offices in M’Chigeeng. “I am still getting earrings coming in,” noted Ms. McQuay. “It is a growing thing.”

Whitefish River First Nation member Maggie Cywink spoke at both the Thunder Bay conference and before the roundtable in Ottawa. Ms. Cywink’s 31-year-old sister Sonya was murdered in 1994, her body discovered 64 kilometres from where she was last seen. In press interviews following the roundtable, Ms. Cywink said that she does not believe the solution will lie in a national inquiry, however. The trauma early in life which led to her sister spiraling into a teen pregnancy, a life of substance abuse and working in the sex trade points the way towards the solution. (See next week’s Expositor for an op-ed by Ms. Cywink on the subject of a national inquiry.)

“We cannot force anyone, including the government, to care about an inquiry until our people come forward, make a stand among ourselves and show the world that we’re standing up against violence against women,” she said, adding that communities need to set up violence prevention programs and offer more support to both young women and young men.

Chief Hare noted that the issue of missing and murdered young men must also be addressed. “There is a lot of education that needs to be done,” he said. “There are a lot of communication and education issues that need to be addressed.

Isadore (Izzy) Pangowish, a Wikwemikong activist who often organizes protests and information pickets at the Little Current swing bridge and the intersection of Highway 6 and Highway 17, said that he was disappointed by the outcome of the roundtable.

“To be blunt, (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper was not evident,” said Mr. Pangowish. “There was no positive outcome from the roundtable, in my view.”

Mr. Pangowish said that his group was currently waiting for the frigid winter temperatures to abate before continuing their local campaign. “We are going to have a couple of demonstrations in Little Current,” he said. “After that we are going to have some in Espanola.”

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who has recently launched a hard-hitting campaign against sexual abuse and the silence that protects it, expressed frustration at the lack of progress stemming from the roundtable.

“There is more that we can do and I feel impatient because I think we know what those things are and I think we need to push ourselves very hard in the coming months to make sure that we live up to our own expectations,” said Premier Wynne at a press conference following the roundtable.

The roundtable proposed another roundtable meeting to take place before the end of 2016 to discuss progress.

Ontario’s own delegation at the National Roundtable on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released the following statement: “Too many aboriginal women and girls have experienced violence, been murdered or gone missing. Too many aboriginal girls spend their lives in constant fear that they will join their family members and friends as just another statistic. This can no longer be tolerated.”

The Ontario delegation identified what it termed “10 proposed actions that we can take right now to improve the situation for aboriginal women and girls.”

Those actions include the creation of a pan-Canadian public awareness campaign and a socio-economic action plan for aboriginal women and girls.”

The roundtable, which included representatives from Canadian provinces and territories as well as national aboriginal organizations, agreed that such a plan is necessary to address the root causes of violence, but added that “having the federal government’s participation in that plan is critical.”

“To end violence against aboriginal women and girls, we need all partners working together and committing to taking joint action,” noted the Ontario delegation. “We need coordinated engagement between aboriginal, provincial, territorial and federal governments to support awareness and prevention, community safety and healing, and improved police and justice responses.”

Among the 10 points listed by the Ontario delegation included calling for a pan-Canadian prevention and awareness campaign, building on existing initiatives, to collaborate to a national campaign focused on “changing the public perception and attitudes on the issue of violence against aboriginal women and girls.”

Further, the Ontario delegation called for a socio-economic action plan for aboriginal women and girls, building on existing initiatives and action plans, for example, the Aboriginal Affairs Working Group, for aboriginal women and girls, would include strategies to address access to housing, child care, education (including transitioning from reserve to non-reserve educational institutions) and economic opportunities. This plan could be reported to the proposed 2016 roundtable.

The 10 points also call for community safety and healing through community safety plans. The plan calls for expanding the Community Safety Plan Initiative to support the development of a targeted number of community safety plans with an emphasis on healing and addressing the safety needs specific to each rural, remote, reserve, settlement and urban community.

The 10 points also focus on inter-agency information sharing, by establishing an inter-agency and cross-sectoral forum where government, police, aboriginal community representatives and other interested partners can gather regularly to share information and best practices and develop collaborative strategies to increase safety for aboriginal women and girls.

The recommendations also call for reducing the number of aboriginal children in care by engaging the federal government in the work of provinces, territories, national and regional aboriginal organizations and affected service providers “in efforts to reduce the high number of aboriginal children in care and ensure the provision of quality, monitored and culturally-grounded care to those in the child welfare system.”

The 10 points call for improved victim services through improving the coordination and delivery of holistic front-line services for aboriginal victims of violence, including access to domestic violence shelters and support for children and families who experience violence, with a strong focus on healing of the family of men, women and children.

When it comes to community engagement protocols, the recommendations call for police and justice services to work with aboriginal communities to develop community engagement protocols for respectful engagement in the design and development of policies, programs and services which could impact aboriginal women and girls.

The Ontario delegation focussed on the need for cultural competency training as part of the solution by providing cultural competency training, including components focussed on aboriginal history, impacts of policies, legislation and historical trauma, for police and criminal justice system workers. Training could also be extended to public servants and public sector employees, including educators, medical and health service workers, child welfare and social service support.

Pan-Canadian collaboration, databases and information sharing would see collaboration on police procedures and improving responses across Canada, including developing accurate and reliable cross-jurisdictional data collection systems and databases on individual missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.

The joint statement also called for support for First Nations policing, particularly through long-term, adequate and sustainable funding agreements.

Chief Hare did not end on an entirely negative note, however. “We are not going to give up on this,” he said. “We finally have Peter McKay taking notice. It isn’t the prime minister, but if Minister McKay is starting to waver, I am going to take that as a positive sign that things are going to change. They have to change.”

Chief Hare called for all communities to stand with the Anishinaabek in finding a solution to the issue of murdered and missing women. “This isn’t just a First Nation issue,” he said.