Every Valentine’s Day, indigenous women, their families and their allies rally across Canada to remember the now more than 824 missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls whose cases have gone unsolved and in many cases uninvestigated.
That updated statistic—previously estimated at nearly 600 before the Conservatives pulled the plug on Native women’s data collection—was revealed by independent Ottawa researcher Maryanne Pearce in late January, the Winnipeg Free Press reported. Other advocates estimate the numbers could be many times worse, according to Rabble.ca.
First held in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 1991, the annual march has grown to thousands and spread to cities across the country, and this year will be no different. The largest ever was held in the midst of the 2010 Olympics when the world’s eyes were on Canada. This year, the Winter Games have rolled around again, as have the annual Women’s Memorial Marches, though Sochi is as far from these shores as a national inquiry is from the Canadian government’s to-do list.
But despite the prominently featured quilt squares featuring missing women’s faces and names, the event is not just about remembrance. Many of the groups marching have maintained a consistent demand over the last several years: that the federal government convene a public inquiry into the shockingly high number of disappearances.
Call after call has gone out for a national inquiry into the deaths and disappearances, but to no avail. From the national to the global stage, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has given a flat-out no to the likes of the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, the Assembly of First Nations, church groups and a host of other organizations that have suggested he convene a panel to study the issue. His reason, he said last year, is that he does not think it would help solve the problem.
“I remain very skeptical of commissions of inquiry generally,” Harper said last year, according to CBC News. “My experience has been they almost always run way over time, way over budget, and often the recommendations prove to be of limited utility.”
Many organizations and individuals disagree, however. Here are just a few of those who are calling for a national inquiry.
1. United Nations
The United Nations has, through a number of its bodies, shone a harsh light on Canada’s treatment of aboriginal women and girls. The high profile visit of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya ended with his endorsement of calls for a national inquiry.
“I have heard a consistent call for a national level inquiry,” he said in a statement following his tour across Canada. “I concur that a comprehensive and nation-wide inquiry into the issue could help ensure a coordinated response and the opportunity for the loved ones of victims to be heard, and would demonstrate a responsiveness to the concerns raised by the families and communities affected by this epidemic.”
Meanwhile, amidst ongoing investigations on the missing women issue by the Committee to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), last April’s Universal Periodic Review—conducted by the United Nations Human Rights Council—saw Canada face scrutiny from dozens of other countries, many zooming in on violence against indigenous women. On paper, Canada said it had accepted 119 of the recommendations. But it rejected recommendations from Ireland and Belarus to launch a national public inquiry, as many of the human rights organizations submitting briefs had requested.
In its recommendation, Ireland advised Canada to “develop a comprehensive national action plan for addressing violence against indigenous women, and, also, give due consideration to an independent national enquiry (sic) into missing indigenous women.”
Likewise, Belarus suggested that Canada conduct “an independent investigation of cases of disappearances and murders of aboriginal women and girls.”
According to the U.N., the review process “provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations.” Canada lashed out at the notion of a national inquiry, ostensibly at the idea of being instructed on human rights from countries with their own spotty records on the issue.
2. Native Women’s Association of Canada
The leading advocacy group for Indigenous women in Canada was the first to push the idea of a national commission of inquiry onto the public radar. That demand continues to this day. The Ottawa-based organization has been quietly gathering more than 10,000 signatures on a petition for such an official investigation, as well as launching a Joint Statement last year that has been endorsed by more than 50 organizations.
“Our hearts are full as we remember our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunties, grandmothers and friends who have been lost to violence,” NWAC President Michele Audette said in a statement in October. “We call on the federal government to support families and communities, aboriginal leadership, allies and the premiers who have voiced the need for a national public inquiry in to missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.”
The group carried out the first database research into how many of Canada’s missing and murdered women were aboriginal, but the federal government axed its funding for the program several years ago and the research was forced to a halt.
3. Provincial Leaders
At the annual meeting of all Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders—the counterparts of governors in the U.S.—the call for a national inquiry was taken up at perhaps the highest Canadian level yet last July.
“The premiers at the table agreed to support the call of the Native Women’s Association of Canada for a national public inquiry on this very, very important issue,” Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne told CBC News after the gathering’s endorsement.
“It speaks to the most vulnerable people in our community, and when they go missing, we all are worse off,” said Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, whose prairie province has the highest concentration of aboriginal people in the country to the National Post. “We want to make sure that they’re safe, that our streets our safe and young women are safe, regardless of who they are.”
Selinger was joined in the inquiry endorsement by the rest of his provincial counterparts, including Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, as well as the rest of the premiers including Alberta’s premier Alison Redford and Newfoundland’s Kathy Dunderdale, who issued their own statements backing an inquiry despite not being in attendance at the gathering.
But unsurprisingly, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development minister Bernard Valcourt dismissed the high-profile demand.
“I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist, and I don’t think you need a national inquiry, to find out what the problem is,” Valcourt told the National Post. “This is happening because, we know, of the legacy of decades of policies towards First Nations that have resulted into what we have today. What is the way out? The way out is not to study anymore. The way out is to take action.”
4. Human Rights Watch
The day before last year’s Women’s Memorial Marches, one of the world’s most prominent rights organizations released a devastating report accusing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police of systematically “failed to protect” Indigenous women and girls in British Columbia.
But most damning of all, the New York-based Human Rights Watch documented widespread allegations of gang rape and other sexual abuse, excessive force against girls, and other abuses of their power as the province’s police force, in a region shamed by some of the highest concentrations of missing women in the country, and notorious serial killer Robert Pickton.
“Human Rights Watch researchers were struck by the fear expressed by women they interviewed,” the organization stated. “The women’s reactions were comparable to those Human Rights Watch has found in post-conflict or post-transition countries, where security forces have played an integral role in government abuses and enforcement of authoritarian policies.”
Its 89-page report, Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada, joined the demand for a national inquiry.
“The persistence of the violence indicates a need for a national public commission of inquiry,” said an HRW press release accompanying the report.
“The high rate of violence against indigenous women and girls has caused widespread alarm for many years,” the group said. “The eyes of the world are on Canada to see how many more victims it takes before the government addresses this issue in a comprehensive and coordinated way … The Canadian government should establish a national commission of inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls, including the impact of police mistreatment on their vulnerability to violence.”
Canada’s Christian churches have much to repent for when it comes to the country’s colonial history. From the 19th century right up until 1996, almost every major denomination operated residential schools that have since been condemned for sexually and physically abusing thousands of aboriginal children, killing several thousand, and attempting to destroy Native culture.
One of those churches was the relatively liberal United Church of Canada, but in the late 1980s it became the first denomination to formally apologize to aboriginal people for its role in the schools. Last year, Canada’s largest Protestant church also became the first to join calls for a national inquiry into missing women.
“Clearly our justice and social systems are not offering adequate protection against violence for Indigenous women in this country,” said the denomination’s General Secretary Nora Sanders in a statement. “We take very seriously the deadly violence to which these women and girls have been subjected, and believe that Indigenous women and girls deserve to be safe, as do all Canadians. This tragedy must be addressed as a step towards returning to healthy and thriving Aboriginal families, communities and nations in Canada.”
NWAC’s joint statement calling for an inquiry was signed by several other religious communities, including a founding signatory in KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, an interdenominational Christian umbrella coalition that also includes some Catholic and Evangelical churches and organizations as well as most major mainstream Protestants.
6. New Democratic Party
The New Democratic Party, Canada’s Official Opposition in government, issued an official call for a national inquiry as marches took place across Canada last February 14. The social democratic party, which pushed aside the Liberals in the 2011 elections to become the second-largest force in Parliament, said it was standing with aboriginal leaders and organizations such as Human Rights Watch “to demand a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.”
“A national, open inquiry is the only way to get justice for the women who have been murdered as well as their families and communities,” said Niki Ashton, the party’s Status of Women Critic. “Successive governments have failed Aboriginal women. Continuing to ignore this national tragedy is unacceptable and will not make it go away. It is a national disgrace that in a country like Canada, women have so little trust in the police. A national inquiry is a necessary first step towards rebuilding this relationship and putting an end to violence against Aboriginal women.”
7. Assembly of First Nations
Speaking alongside the family of CJ Morningstar Fowler—a 16-year-old aboriginal girl who was found murdered in B.C. in late 2012—a tearful National Chief Shawn Atleo re-asserted his organization’s longstanding call for a national inquiry.
“There is no good reason for the loss of this life—none whatsoever,” Atleo said, according to The Tyee. “There is no reason that is acceptable. It is a tragedy of incredible proportions that is a crisis that requires the country be seized by this matter. That’s why we call for a national commission of inquiry.”
On January 10, more than a year after Fowler’s death, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Kamloops arrested her 22-year-old boyfriend in the killing. But in the cases of the vast number of missing aboriginal women and girls like her, the killings remain unsolved—and too often, uninvestigated. As the top body representing more than 600 First Nations leaders across the country, the AFN continues to push for a national inquiry—but so far their calls have gone unheeded by the feds.
8. Disgraced Senator Patrick Brazeau
Possibly the national inquiry campaign’s most unwelcome supporter was a Conservative who has since fallen dramatically from grace in Canada amidst of litany of criminal charges including fraud, as reported by CBC News, and domestic violence, detailed in the National Post. Ousted Senator Patrick Brazeau, Algonquin, might not have been the endorsement that anybody was hoping for. But in November 2012 the former head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples released a song he wrote for missing aboriginal women, “Come Back to Me.”
Brazeau stood out as the only Conservative to join the opposition parties in backing a national inquiry. Nevertheless, the endorsement received an unsurprisingly lukewarm reception from organizations.
“I don’t know what’s behind it,” admitted NWAC president Michele Audette. “Is it sincere? I have no idea. “But one thing that’s clear: he’s a public figure who represents a government that’s staying really quiet on this national strategy demand. It’s an emergency and a crisis.”
9. Liberal Party of Canada
“I am encouraged that the Honourable Senator Brazeau has recently come onside with the need for a national inquiry,” said Liberal Senator Lillian Dyck. “I hope he can convince his Conservative colleagues to also come onside and make a national inquiry a reality.”
In the absence of a formal inquiry commission, however, Liberals started investigating anyway.
Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, from Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, launched an internal Senate investigation into missing and murdered women. Likewise, former Liberal leader Bob Rae supported a similar investigation in the House of Commons during his term.
10. Labor Unions
Some of Canada’s largest labor unions have also joined the push for an inquiry. The national body representing the country’s unions, the Canadian Labour Congress, issued its own plea in October 2013, pledging to join missing women’s families at country-wide vigils.
“We support the call for a National Public Inquiry to address the scale and severity of violence faced by Aboriginal women and girls and call on governments to work with aboriginal women and representative organizations, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada, to bring justice to the families and communities affected,” the Canadian Labour Congress said in a statement.
On December 6, the congress used the occasion of National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women—held to mark the 1989 massacre of 14 female engineering students—to remark that aboriginal women are grossly overrepresented in violence statistics and to the creation the “National Action Plan” called for by most U.N. bodies and Amnesty International, what it called “a proactive, comprehensive approach to a systemic problem.”