If you live in Canada and have not recently returned from a long sabbatical on another planet, you have probably heard the phrase missing Aboriginal women more often than you wished to hear it. If you drove along Highway 401 in eastern Ontario you could even see a billboard placed by the local Aboriginal band referring to the “missing women.” If you took the train from Toronto to Montreal instead of driving, you may have learned about them in a different way. On more than one occasion the passenger train service between our two largest cities has been suspended because the Aboriginals blocked the Canadian National’s main line in an effort to force the government to launch an “inquiry” into the alleged disappearances. People who are into this issue often allege that more than a thousand, or even “thousands,” of Aboriginal women have mysteriously disappeared.
There is something very Canadian about the belief that social problems, real or imaginary, can be solved by the government conducting an inquiry. Our national addiction to Royal Commissions, task forces and so forth is well known. But the demand for an inquiry into this particular matter seems to have acquired an unusually large and vociferous following. Amnesty International, an organization that used to specialize in helping people who were imprisoned for their religious or political beliefs, has made the “missing” women one of its major priorities for the last several months, although situations closer to its original terms of reference are certainly not in short supply these days. Both of the major opposition parties in Parliament have called on the federal government to conduct an inquiry into missing Aboriginal women. The provincial premiers, always happy to find a stick with which to beat the federal government, have done the same, joined by a large part of the media.
Not to be outdone, the Globe and Mail on February 14 devoted the entire back page of its Saturday “Focus” section to a photograph of a woman’s dress hanging from a tree and an upper-case headline that reads “IMAGINE 1,181 DAUGHTERS NEVER RETURNING HOME. NOW IMAGINE THAT NO ONE CARES.” In three paragraphs that followed the newspaper rather pompously announced that its “drive for justice will not vanish” until the matter is cleared up. Two weeks later the Globe repeated exactly the same advertisement in case anyone had missed it the first time.
Prime Minister Harper, to his credit, continues to assert that such an inquiry would serve no useful purpose, and that the police and courts are quite capable of dealing with the problem, as indeed they are doing. A few lonely voices have agreed with him, notably Jeffrey Simpson in a column published last August 27 under the headline “Posturing is the Only Reason for a Missing Women Inquiry.”As a matter of fact, and as Simpson’s column points out, in 2013 the Commissioner of the RCMP actually initiated such an inquiry, which was published the following year under the title Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview. The inquiry and report were in response to representations by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).
The RCMP report covers the years from 1980 to 2012 inclusive, a time frame chosen to correspond with that used by NWAC in its efforts to collect data on the subject. It is filled with data that deserve careful reading (see box). Over that period of time, 164 Canadian Aboriginal women, or about five every year, had gone missing in the sense that they were never found either dead or alive. (One of them turned up alive in Tennessee in December 2014, several months after the release of the report.) The police suspected foul play in only 44 of these cases, but could not prove it in the absence of a body. The rest were presumably victims of accident or suicide unless, like the one found in Tennessee, they are actually still alive.
During the same period of 33 years another 1,017 Canadian Aboriginal women were known victims of homicide, or an average of about 31 each year. The people who demand an “inquiry,” including the Globe and Mail, usually combine the two numbers to produce a total of 1,181 “missing” women, although only about one seventh of the total number are actually missing in the normal sense of the term.
According to the RCMP data, Aboriginal women accounted for almost 19 per cent of female homicide victims in Canada over the years 1980 to 2012 inclusive, which is four to five times the Aboriginal percentage of Canada’s population. Clearly Aboriginal women are at greater risk of falling victim to homicide than other Canadian women. Among the population of Aboriginal women the annual homicide rate is between 5 and 6 per 100,000. This is high by Canadian standards, but is about the same as the average rate for both sexes and for all races in the United States.
The great majority (89 per cent) of these homicides were solved by the police in the sense that the killers were arrested, charged and convicted. The solution rates for homicides with female victims were identical for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal victims. The majority (52 per cent) of the murdered Aboriginal women were killed by their husbands or other family members, another 10 per cent by close friends, and 30 per cent by acquaintances. Only 8 per cent were killed by someone not known to the victim. Physical beating or stabbing were the main causes of death for murdered Aboriginal women, accounting for nearly two thirds of all cases.
The data suggest that the great majority of the victims were almost certainly killed by fellow Aboriginals, either male or female, a fact that tends to be downplayed or denied by most of those people who demand an inquiry. The Harper government’s observation that the problem is mainly one of domestic violence is not appreciated by those who prefer to attribute the deaths to racism, colonialism, imperialism and the other sins to which white men are supposedly addicted. The fact that one of the most publicized criminal trials in recent years, that of British Columbian mass murderer Robert Pickton, involved a white man many of whose victims were Aboriginal women, has of course provided some grist for their mill.
Although declining to launch an inquiry, the Harper government eventually agreed to participate in a one-day roundtable to discuss the issue. This event took place in Ottawa on February 27, and the federal government was represented by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, and the Minister responsible for the Status of Women, Kellie Leitch. The premiers of Ontario, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories also put in an appearance, as did an assortment of Aboriginal people from various parts of the country.
The day before the roundtable the Aboriginals released a document entitled Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada: Review of Reports and Recommendations. The authors of the document claimed to have reviewed no fewer than 58 studies, reports and inquiries into the issue, not counting their own report, a claim that would seem to cast doubt on the need for still another inquiry. This did not stop the Globe and Mail on the same day by printing an editorial entitled “Not Enough Data, Not Enough Answers, on Missing Aboriginal Women.”
The roundtable predictably failed to produce a meeting of minds between the government and its Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal critics, although a few of the Aboriginal attendees (not named in the Globe and Mail’s account the following day) apparently agreed with the government that yet another inquiry would not be useful. The two federal ministers in attendance were on record as saying that “the solution to the violence rests largely with changing the behaviours and attitudes of men on reserves who they say are often the perpetrators of the crimes.” This attitude, according to the Globe and Mail, angered some (male?) Indigenous leaders.
On March 20 Aboriginal Affairs Minister Valcourt elaborated on these comments in a private meeting with some Aboriginal chiefs in Calgary. He stated that “up to” 70 per cent of murdered Aboriginal women were killed by people in “their own communities” and that the RCMP had data to support this claim. In response several chiefs demanded the minister’s resignation. Steve Courtoreille, the Grand Chief of Treaty 8 First Nations, sent a letter to Prime Minister Harper in which he described Valcourt’s comments as “disrespectful” and “offensive” and stated that the members of his organization would no longer communicate with the federal government until the minister was replaced.
Following these events the RCMP, which had originally chosen not to include data on the ethnicity of the killers in its public report, reversed its decision and promised to release another public report which would confirm the data cited by the minister. Meanwhile the Commissioner of the RCMP indicated in a letter to the Grand Chief of Treaty 6 First Nations that the 70 per cent figure was accurate. The second report was expected to be made public in mid-May, but had not yet been released at the time of writing.
So what more would we learn if the sought-after government “inquiry” actually took place? Apart from providing a platform on which the usual suspects could sound off about treaties, constitutional rights, residential schools, the settlement of the prairies, the Royal Proclamation of King George III and various other matters, what would be the point of having one? I think these questions must be answered with regard to the larger political context.
In recent years Canadian courts have indulged in more and more generous interpretations of the “aboriginal and treaty rights” referred to in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Although some provincial premiers at the time of patriation tried to avoid this outcome by insisting that the word existing be inserted before “aboriginal and treaty rights,” this modification has had little or no effect. “Existing” rights are whatever the Supreme Court says they are, even if their existence cannot be proven by the rules of evidence used in most judicial proceedings. Indeed the Court has even ruled that stories passed down orally from generation to generation can be cited as evidence in cases involving section 35.
These broad interpretations have produced, predictably, a revolution of rising expectations. The stakes are enormous, because the future development of Canada’s resources, the improvement of its infrastructure and the expansion of its major metropolitan areas inevitably involve the use of land, almost all of which might be claimed by some group of Aboriginals, supported by their army of lawyers and consultants, as part of their domain. Much of the energy of the political and intellectual left in Canada has already been diverted from its traditional concerns into the support of such claims. The environmental movement, which has gained great strength in recent years, has formed a strong alliance with the Aboriginal “rights” movement, since they seem to share a common interest in obstructing the development of Canada’s lands and resources. (Of course whether this is really in the interest of Aboriginals, many of whom work in the resource industries and many more of whom could potentially do so, is quite another matter.)
The one element that is still needed to create an almost unbeatable left-wing coalition in support of Aboriginal claims is the feminist movement. Historically the relations between feminists and Aboriginal elites have not been smooth. Despite much of the romantic nonsense about Aboriginal culture that one reads or hears nowadays, Aboriginal men have not been renowned for their sympathy or respect for women. In the Lavell case (1973), the Supreme Court upheld a provision of the Indian Act which deprived Aboriginal women, but not Aboriginal men, of their Indian status if they married non-Aboriginals. Male Aboriginal elites welcomed this unfair decision because they feared an influx onto the reserves of white men, who would compete for the more desirable women. In the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, most Aboriginal women (and a majority of all voters on reserves) apparently voted against Aboriginal self-government, although the Aboriginal elites had insisted on its inclusion in the document.
However, the campaign for an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women has the potential to bring the Aboriginal establishment and feminists into the same camp. Note that there has been no mention of missing or murdered Aboriginal men, although presumably they have existed. Judging by the media, this strategy of alliance-building is already starting to pay off.
No one should doubt that Aboriginal Canadians face many serious problems. Most of these problems have been created or at least exacerbated by the reserve system, well-intentioned though it may have been in the beginning. Encouraging people to live in overcrowded and mainly remote locations with minimal access to health care, education and employment is not doing them a favour. While this policy provides wealth and power for a small Aboriginal elite, it is also a source of high rates of violence, exacerbated by alcohol and affecting both men and women.
The contrast between the lives of most Aboriginal people in Canada and the relative success achieved, often in less than a generation, by most immigrants of all races, languages and creeds is painfully obvious. It is at least arguable that Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien were on the right track in 1969 when they proposed, in the notorious White Paper, that the Indian Act be abolished and that Aboriginals be treated the same as all other residents of our country. As we know, they quickly retreated from that policy and moved in the opposite direction with section 35.
Romanticizing Aboriginal folklore and traditions, as has become fashionable nowadays, and lamenting the very fact that Europeans ever came to North America, as increasing numbers of young people (themselves of European ancestry) seem to be doing, is not the way to resolve the problems of Aboriginal people. They need more integration into Canadian society, not less. Distracting people with red herrings and mouthing fashionable slogans will not bring that about.