Indigenous women and girls: advocates demand federal plan before October election

A vigil was held on Parliament Hill last October to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Similar vigils were held across the country. (CBC News)
A coalition of human rights advocates is imploring the federal government to act now on decades of recommendations to address Canada’s high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The report, released Feb. 6, was co-authored by the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA), Canada Without Poverty, and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. It was submitted to the national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls during the last evidence gathering sessions in December.

Titled “A National Action Plan to End Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls: The Time is Now,” the document outlines the reality faced by Indigenous women and girls in Canada and recommends dozens of changes to legislation, child welfare, justice and health policies.

Co-author Pam Palmater said the coalition wanted the report released to families and communities of missing and murdered women, but also to politicians gearing up for an election year.

“One of the things they promised was that this national inquiry would not be used as an excuse for them to not take immediate action,” Palmater said.

“We wanted [to] make sure that they had the relevant information about what they should be doing … and also that this not be left until after the election.”

‘It’s life and death’

According to a 2014 federal police (RCMP) report, Indigenous women and girls made up 4.3 per cent of the overall female population in 2011, while 11.3 per cent of missing females in 2013 were Indigenous and 16 per cent of all female victims of homicide between 1980 and 2012 were Indigenous.

The inquiry’s final report is expected in April. Palmater said the coalition was concerned federal departments may hesitate to include the resources required to address what they call Canada’s “human rights crisis,” in 2019 budget proposals without that final report from inquiry commissioners.

Report co-author Pam Palmater says the coalition wanted the report released now so the recommendations were available to people planning 2019-2020 budgets. (Pam Palmater)

“This isn’t just another issue in a long line of issues that needs to be dealt with,” said Palmater.

“It’s life and death. We need the public to put pressure on both the national inquiry to make these recommendations but also to hold the federal and provincial governments accountable.”

The coalition’s report also highlights Canada’s obligation to adhere to international human rights law. One of the first recommendations the coalition made to Canada was following through on the efforts to eliminate gender discrimination in the Indian Act.

The report’s co-author Shelagh Day, chair of FAFIA’s human rights committee, said if Canada were serious about doing something about violence against Indigenous women and girls, one of the first steps would be to remove that discrimination.

Prior to 1985, women with Indian status who married a non-Indigenous man lost their status, and their children were denied status, separating many from their communities.

Despite several amendments since 1985, human rights advocates say a sex-based hierarchy of status remains in the Indian Act.

‘Canada’s not ready to have more Indians’

The federal government is still engaged in consultation with First Nations on how best to implement one provision of the most recent Bill S-3 amendments, removing the 1951 cutoff for registration reforms.

Day calls the government’s delay “shocking,” since Indigenous women are vulnerable as a result of Canada’s history of racist policies, she said.

“Cabinet meets on Tuesdays. That means that any Tuesday, the government could decide [to] get rid of 125 years of sex discrimination. They haven’t done it yet,” Day said.

“The only conclusion I can come to is that Canada’s not ready to have more Indians.”

Along with correcting the gender discrimination, Day said the coalition is asking Canada to bring Indigenous women and children out of poverty, correcting problems with child welfare services, and addressing violence toward women from police officers.

“We’re not talking about some little tweak here and there,” Day said.

“It’s a problem rooted in the history of Canada and we have to be prepared to face it.”

$10M for commemorations

On Feb. 2, the federal government announced it would disburse $10 million to Indigenous organizations to commemorate the murdered and missing. The coalition said the endowment shows Canada may not be taking the issues seriously enough.

“What will it mean to the families tomorrow who lose their 12-year-old girl to a human trafficker that there’s a new statue in a park somewhere?” asked Palmater.

“That’s not to diminish the importance of commemoration … but it does nothing to stop the violence against Indigenous women and that’s where Canada falls down every time.”

Day said while recognizing past tragedies is important, she thinks the focus needs to be on halting the current crisis.

“We want to hear from government and from parties how they understand this problem and what they’re committed to,” she said.

“We need a national action plan.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Mining and energy projects near Indigenous communities undermine womens’ safety, experts tell Canada’s inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, CBC News

Finland: Swedish-speaking Finnish women launch their own #metoo campaign, Yle News

United States: Alaska reckons with missing data on murdered Indigenous women, Alaska Public Media

Nic Meloney, CBC News

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