Violence against aboriginal women requires creative solutions, not a federal inquiry

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 inqu


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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Team Yukon skip Laura Eby, left, directs her team as Team Northern Ontario skip Krysta Burns looks on at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary on Feb. 22. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Team Yukon reports positive experience at Scotties

Team Yukon played their final game at the national championship in Calgary on Thursday afternoon

A sign indicating a drop-off area behind Selkirk Elementary school in Whitehorse on Feb. 25. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Parking lot proposal for Selkirk Elementary criticized

Parents and school council are raising concerns about green space and traffic woes


Wyatt’s World for Feb. 26, 2021

Ken Anderson’s Sun and Moon model sculpture sits in the snow as he carves away at the real life sculpture behind Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre for the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous festival in Whitehorse on Feb. 21, 2018. Yukon Rendezvous weekend kicks off today with a series of outdoor, virtual and staged events. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Rendezvous snowpad, live music and fireworks this weekend

A round-up of events taking place for the 2021 Rendezvous weekend

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. The proposed Atlin Hydro Expansion project is moving closer to development with a number of milestones reached by the Tlingit Homeland Energy Limited Partnership and Yukon Energy over the last several months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Atlin hydro project progresses

Officials reflect on milestones reached

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read