A woman on the scorched earth of Darfur and an aboriginal woman in Canada share a problem.
Both are often subjected to rape, abuse and even murder while people nearby and around the world remain blind to their plight, says Alex Neve, secretary general of the Canadian arm of Amnesty International.
Neve isn’t some bleeding heart trying to use his influence to stir the pot. Instead, he was in Whitehorse Thursday to speak about his harrowing experiences documenting the growing humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan and neighbouring Chad.
That he spoke about violence towards aboriginal women in Canada in the same breath said a lot.
The case of Robert ‘Willie’ Pickton, now on trial for the murder of six First Nations women, is the nadir of a common story in Canada, he said.
“I think it’s critical that Canadians recognize that the tragedy we’re hearing more about day after day coming out of the Pickton trial is not by any means unique,” said Neve, who has headed Canada’s branch of Amnesty in Ottawa since 2000.
“That’s a particularly gruesome instance of it, but this is a tragic story that plays out in every corner of Canada.”
Discrimination and violence against indigenous women in Canada have reached “alarming levels,” he said, noting Amnesty International’s scathing 2004 report on human rights abuses against aboriginal women in Canada, Stolen Sisters.
The report found aboriginal women are five times as likely to die from violence as other women in Canada.
Amnesty is calling for more research into human rights abuses of aboriginal women, and a nationwide shift in attitudes among police forces.
“Because of that vulnerability, any kind of call or report that comes in — that an indigenous woman is missing or facing violence — needs to be approached with a level of seriousness that we often see missing,” said Neve.
“It’s sadly still not uncommon to hear of attitudes within police that when that kind of call comes in, the first impulse isn’t, ‘Oh my heavens, five times more likely to be killed;’ the response may be more along the lines of, ‘Oh, drunken squaw out for a stroll.’”
Fittingly for a man with a master’s degree in human rights law, the problem is more than just a black eye on the justice system.
“There is no question that for decades there are indigenous women in this country who have been attacked, killed or gone missing because they are indigenous and women,” said Neve.
“Justice systems have failed them because they are indigenous and women — and Canadians haven’t paid attention.
“That’s obviously all about discrimination, which makes it firmly a human rights issue,” he said.
“It’s not just a criminal law concern or a social ill.”
Several reports indicate aboriginal sex workers told the RCMP in Vancouver about what was happening at the Pickton farm as long ago as the 1970s, but the Mounties did very little.
Police only began investigating Pickton in 1998. Two first-degree murder charges were laid against him in 2002 after police searched his farm for evidence.
A similar tale of the forgotten is being writ large in western Sudan and eastern Chad, said Neve.
“People in that part of Africa are truly and utterly abandoned right now,” he said, recalling his two-week trip to Chad to document the crisis.
In the last four years, the Darfur region of Sudan has descended into madness.
Amnesty estimates more than 250,000 people have been murdered; thousands more women have been raped, and more than two million people have been dislocated from their lands.
At the heart of the crisis is a geometric war that makes little sense to many outsiders.
Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed, are ethnically cleansing African black tribes such as the Fur, Zaghawa, Dajo and Masalit in both Darfur and Chad as they seek land and power.
Amnesty, like a UN peacekeeping force, isn’t allowed to enter Darfur as Sudan’s military government won’t allow it.
Neve travelled to neighbouring Chad expecting to talk with those forced to flee the region, but found, to his surprise, the conflict is spreading.
“The recent trip was also focused on the very disturbing reality that Darfur is now happening in Chad,” he said.
“It’s the same thing: villages are attacked, people are forced to flee, many are killed in the course of the attacks, significant numbers of women are being raped, both during the attacks and after the attacks.”
Like the government in Sudan, which many accuse of propping up the Janjaweed militia, the military government in Chad isn’t “lifting a finger” to help its people, said Neve.
“One wishes there was an easy, clear answer,” said Neve of the war.
Long-standing conflicts between the Arabs and black Africans go very deep, though both sides are Muslim, he said.
“We were all staggered at how immense the crisis has become,” said Neve.
“I’m used to harrowing stories and worrisome situations. But I don’t think I’ve ever, though, been at the frontlines of watching something get worse.”
Neve was in Whitehorse as a Maddison Chair in Northern Justice speaker, and spoke to students at Vanier Secondary School and later at Yukon College.