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Why wait for Harper to address aboriginal violence?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has unveiled his action plan for addressing the high number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has unveiled his action plan for addressing the high number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. The action, as such, is to make a long list of every federal program that could conceivably be said to touch on the issue, count up all the dollars committed to these existing programs, and then announce this spending, stretched across five years for a more dramatic final tally, as if it’s something new.

That’s just a long way of saying that Harper plans to do nothing at all, beyond what’s already being done. Many of these programs seem worthwhile, but it’s dishonest to present them as if they’re a new, co-ordinated response to the issue, which is how Conservatives like our MP, Ryan Leef, make it sound.

Leef, of course, is in a tough spot, as someone who promised to advocate for a federal inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women on behalf of Yukoners. The government has offered its plan - which, it’s worth repeating, is to do absolutely nothing new - as an alternative to this scheme. Leef now says he needs to chat with his constituents about this new plan. What are the odds of them being won over?

A forthright approach for the Conservatives would have been to say that they believe they’re already doing plenty of things to improve the social conditions of aboriginal Canadians, and here’s a big list of existing programs to prove it. Or, if the Harper government wanted to buttress its argument that it values action over talk on this issue, it could have pledged to spend the cost of a federal inquiry on new programs over several years. That would have been a real action plan, if the government had wanted to brag about one.

Instead, Harper won’t even dignify this issue with a serious response. This is disappointing, if unsurprising. Harper, after all, recently declared during a visit to Whitehorse that the matter of missing and murdered aboriginal women was simply a matter of hunting down criminals, and was not a “sociological phenomenon.” Inconveniently, many of the programs included in the so-called action plan deal with the broader social issues that Harper idiotically insists have nothing to do with the matter.

But the Conservatives aren’t wrong about everything on this issue. They’re right that it’s no mystery why a disproportionate number of aboriginal women end up missing and murdered, and that a federal inquiry is unlikely to shed much new light on the issue, which has already been thoroughly examined in previous reports. Poverty, addictions, the legacy of residential schools - the familiar tangle of interconnected social woes - play a big part in why aboriginal women - and men, for that matter - are more likely to face violent deaths.

Leef is also correct to say that if other jurisdictions see this as a pressing issue, they could do more than holler at the federal government about it. He’s suggested that other governments could pay for an inquiry, but, following the Conservatives’ own logic, wouldn’t it make more sense for local governments to create their own action plans instead, for the lack of a real one being produced in Ottawa?

You could say this is particularly true in the Yukon, where our territorial government has a big budget to spend as it sees fit, and all but three of our First Nations are no longer under the thumb of Aboriginal Affairs. If there’s a consensus among Yukon’s leaders that more should be done on this file, why not do it ourselves? If it’s a pressing aim to improve the social conditions of aboriginal Yukoners, why lay blame entirely at the feet of a prime minister who was never elected on a platform of tackling intractable social problems, and shows zero interest in doing so?

Here’s one way about it. Yukon’s chiefs and our premier could convene a Yukon Forum with the aim of creating a real plan of their own. The forum rarely meets anymore, presumably since the premier dislikes being ganged up on by chiefs who rarely see eye-to-eye with him. Well, here’s a problem that all involved agree is intolerable. Obviously, there is no single, simple solution - but if more needs to be done, then let’s do more.

Maybe each leader could present a single new idea his or her government plans to introduce to help improve the lives of First Nation women in their communities. The group, as a whole, could then pick one project that stood out, and vow to roll it out across the whole territory.

One promising idea, used successfully in the Northwest Territories, is to create a video in which former abusers talk about how they learned to abandon violence. Those speaking in the N.W.T. video, critically, are all aboriginal men. Here in the Yukon, anti-violence campaigns are too often led by privileged white women and men, who, however well-intentioned, face barriers of race, culture and class when trying to engage with aboriginal communities.

Another idea worth replicating is the community safety project started by the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, which brought RCMP, government and community organizations together to try to build trust between residents and authorities. Abused women in Yukon’s communities often fear speaking to police. Building this trust takes time.

These ideas are borrowed from Cathy Richardson and Allan Wade, partners in the Centre for Response-Based Practice, a B.C. group dedicated to helping victims of violence. They recently visited the Yukon to share some ideas. They probably have plenty of others worth cribbing.

It’s possible that launching these new projects may not even cost our local governments much, as a large chunk of the existing federal money for such things is to be doled out as grants. Leef is keen to see the Yukon grab as much of this dough as possible. Perhaps the Yukon government could also help local First Nations, many of which are under-staffed, to produce as many smart grant proposals as possible to tap these funds.

If dealing with this issue is a real priority of our territorial leaders, of course, they’ll find a way to pay for these projects, even if Ottawa fails to cough up more cash, by cutting some of the more frivolous programs if needed. That’s how governments pay for real priorities.