by Ken Coates
Critics of the Government of Canada have pushed hard for a federal inquiry into the shocking levels of violence against aboriginal women, sparked by the recent murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg. Superficially, the idea of an inquiry seems logical, particularly if such an investigation produced viable and sustainable solutions to an epidemic of violence directed at vulnerable women.
The inquiry route, however, is the wrong one for Canada and the wrong one for aboriginal women, who absolutely deserve greater protection and who have to be saved from the scourge of violence across the country. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is wrong when he says that the issue is criminal in nature and not “sociological.” There are countless studies that have documented the roots of violence against women and against aboriginal women specifically, and these are profoundly social, cultural and economic in nature.
Canada has held many inquiries, commissions and royal commissions over the years. Some, like the MacDonald commission on Canada’s economic prospects, played a crucial role in leading Canada toward free trade. Others elevated issues from the background and made them national news. The LeDain commission on drugs, the bilingualism and biculturalism commission, and the LaMarsh study on the status of women all sent a bright spotlight into areas of public policy largely shielded from public view. Aboriginal people had a royal commission devoted to them, resulting in a voluminous report published in 1996 that captured the complexity of indigenous issues in Canada but failed to capture the public or the political imagination.
What makes the matter of murdered aboriginal women somewhat different is that the immediate and contextual causes are quite well-known. Most murders of aboriginal women – of all women, sadly – involve family members or other people close to the victim. The causes are painfully familiar: drug and alcohol abuse, sustained domestic violence, and the tragic lifestyles of young women forced into prostitution and hard drug use. We know, in general, who kills aboriginal women, why the murders occur, and the family and social context in which the violence occurs.
We also know the broader social and historical environment that created the intense poverty, marginalization, and social crisis. We are much less frank in addressing systematic racism – a painful and real experience for far too many aboriginal Canadians – but most will acknowledge that it is there.
It is true that, despite a firm grasp on the nature of the problem, no one knows precisely what to do. From the 1970s on, the then Department of Indian Affairs tried to address social problems with more programs and greater government engagement. While there were some improvements, in many ways the active intervention by government did not solve problems that were more social, cultural and economic in nature.
The current government is preoccupied with economic development, believing that jobs and prosperity – along with modern agreements and aboriginal self-government – will address the social and community ills over time. We can see the improvements economic development has brought for the James Bay Cree, Meadow Lake, Onion Lake, Osoyoos, the Tahltan, Carcross-Tagish, Inuvialuit and many other groups. But even here, the path is uncertain and there is no assurance of uniform success.
All the while, indigenous women – and aboriginal men – continue to die at an alarming pace and often in gruesome and awful ways.
Public policy is not the only lever available to Canadians. The country at large can get engaged, with and at the request of First Nations. Unions, churches, community organizations, philanthropists and others can get involved directly, as former Prime Minister Paul Martin continues to do, as Aditya Jha has done with his private foundation, and as another initiative by Chinese-Canadian leaders has the potential to do.
Most of the real problems facing aboriginal people in Canada did not begin with government policy and will not be solved by policy actions. The crisis began with racial stereotypes, discrimination, hostility and cultural disdain, all of which fed into government actions over time. Canadians – with their governments following rather than leading – have to do more.
So why don’t we Canadians do something different, instead of retreating to the time-worn idea of national inquiry, which is rather like punting the ball deep into the political wilderness. If there ever was an opportunity for a citizens’ mobilization, where aboriginal and non-aboriginal people came together to focus on solutions – not causes – this is it.
There is a remarkable model before us, provided by the founders of Idle No More, who showed that peaceful engagement focused on consciousness raising could sweep the country and mobilize tens of thousands of aboriginal people. Why not start a “problem-solver’s movement,” involving community leaders, activists, professionals and the general public, designed to work with local aboriginal groups to identify possible solutions to the crisis of murdered aboriginal women?
Canadians are good at talking – and we are better at finger-pointing. We are much less accomplished at problem-solving and figuring out real world solutions to serious and sustained social problems. The murders of hundreds of aboriginal women is a national disgrace. Let’s not assume that government has all of the answers. Let’s transform the tragedies into a search for workable solutions and, even more importantly, reconciliation between indigenous peoples and all other Canadians.
Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. He is the co-author of the MLI report New Beginnings: How Canada’s natural resource wealth could re-shape relations with aboriginal people.