What a relief. Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Whitehorse yesterday and shared with the territory a fresh insight: the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada is not, in fact, a “sociological phenomenon.” Rather, the root of the problem is that we simply haven’t locked enough people away in prison.
“We should view it as crime,” Harper said. “It is crime against innocent people, and it needs to be addressed as such.”
Well, that makes things much tidier, doesn’t it?
No need to fret over the toxic brew that contributes to the many troubles faced by Canada’s aboriginal communities: high unemployment, rife substance abuse, overcrowded housing, low education levels, not to mention the terrible traumas inflicted during residential schools that continue to be passed from one generation to the next, and so forth.
You would think that if the social conditions of aboriginal women had any bearing on their well-being, it would be incumbent upon Canadian governments to actually improve the situation. Thankfully, it’s only a matter of hunting down those bloody criminals.
What a remarkably stupid position for the prime minister to take. These comments were offered as Harper’s rationale as to why a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women is, in his view, not needed. Marian Horne, president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council, has rightfully deplored this take.
She’s far from alone. Harper’s opposition to an inquest stands in contrast to all other federal parties, save his own, and all Yukon parties. Heck, even Harper’s MP for the Yukon, Ryan Leef, has publicly called for an inquiry, in a rare case of him veering from the party line.
Here’s the problem. If “sociological phenomenon” is just a highfalutin way of referring to the social and economic circumstances we find ourselves in, then these are the forces that help drive crime. If you happen to be young, poor, uneducated, struggle with addictions and live in overcrowded housing, your odds of being victimized are far higher than the average Canadian. These same forces also make it more likely that you will be caught committing violent crimes. And, of course, many aboriginal Canadians tend to find themselves in precisely these circumstances.
After all, what is the countervailing theory? More strident critics would say that old-fashioned racism among authorities must play a big role, but surely that’s not Harper’s take.
Instead, it seems to be that criminals are bad people, and bad people belong in jail. That view may make sense if we’re focused on the deeds of a serial killer like Robert Picton. But the reality is that much violence faced by aboriginal women is inflicted by spouses or other people they know. Often enough, these are people also stuck in the same quagmire of aboriginal social dysfunction.
What’s more, it’s not as if the lock-‘em-up approach hasn’t already been tried. Currently, one-quarter of federal inmates are already aboriginal, compared to aboriginal people comprising just four per cent of Canada’s population. The rehabilitative impact, to date, has been pretty terrible. Yet, in Harper’s world, it seems we just aren’t locking up enough people, for long enough.
This, of course, fits into Harper’s broader tough-on-crime schtick, which appeals to the Conservative base but has little to do with empirical studies of crime. During a speech to the faithful in Whitehorse, Harper bragged about Canada’s declining crime rate – failing to bother noting that the decline began well before the Conservatives took office.
Harper, naturally enough, also failed to acknowledge that real-world studies have found that longer sentences have little impact on preventing future crimes, while certain rehabilitative measures have had a measurable impact. That would sort of undermine a big plank of his platform. Thankfully for him, the tough-on-crime crowd he panders to have never been much bothered by such finicky stuff as credible evidence.
Strangely enough, Harper’s comments in the Yukon probably have the opposite effect intended. Previously, it was possible to think that a national inquiry wasn’t needed, as such exercises, as Harper has himself noted, often become an excuse for foot-dragging. Wouldn’t it be better to just roll up our sleeves and act instead?
Reasonable people at that point may have assumed that working to improve the material well-being of aboriginal Canadians would have to somehow play into this solution. Just how to go about untangling the knot of social pathologies that ensnare many aboriginal communities is, of course, no easy thing, which is why most Canadian politicians would just as soon ignore the whole mess. But is it really necessary to have a retired judge spend umpteen months touring the country and compiling horrific stories, when the material deprivations and social dysfunctions that underlie this dismal drama are already well understood?