'Urgent actions' needed to address violence against Indigenous women and girls — UN report

The United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women had some strong words for Canada at the end of her 13-day visit, saying the country has “unfinished business that requires urgent actions.”

Special rapporteur says Canada should start addressing issues now and not wait for national inquiry to end

Dubravka Simonovic was appointed to her role as UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women in June 2015 by the UN Human Rights Council. (OSCE/Micky Kroell)

The United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women had some strong words for Canada at the end of her 13-day visit, saying the country has "unfinished business that requires urgent actions."

In presenting her preliminary findings on Monday in Ottawa, Dubravka Simonovic said violence against women in Canada remains a "serious pervasive and systematic problem." 

Her visit involved looking into violence against women overall in Canada. But she spent a considerable amount of time speaking specifically to immediate actions that should be taken in addressing the safety and well-being of Indigenous women and girls.

"Indigenous women from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities are overtly disadvantaged within their societies and in the larger national scheme," she wrote in her end of mission statement. 

"Indigenous women face marginalization, exclusion and poverty because of institutional, systemic, multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination that has not been addressed adequately by the State."

In particular, she said Canada needs to address the root causes that lead to disproportionate levels of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

'Being Indigenous and female is a risk'

During Simonovic's time in Canada she met with federal, provincial and territorial governments, independent institutions and advisory boards.

She visited women's shelters, correctional facilities and had a conference call with the chief commissioner of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Marion Buller. 

While commending the government for following through with the establishment of a national inquiry, Simonovic also said the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women Committee had also pointed out several other measures that should be taken by Canada.

"In addition to this national inquiry, urgent actions are needed now," she said.

"They are needed. They could be done now, irrespective of decision if this inquiry is going to be concluded soon."

Issues such as the high number of Indigenous children in the welfare system and the overrepresentation of indigenous women in the prison system should be addressed now, she said.

Marion Buller, the chief commissioner for the national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press )

According to the interim report from the national inquiry, "simply being Indigenous and female is a risk."

The report details how Indigenous women are physically and sexually assaulted almost three times more often than non-Indigenous women in Canada. They are also experiencing domestic violence at higher rates and are roughly seven times more likely to be killed by a serial killer.

"It is not sufficient to work only on one issue," said Simonovic, adding that changes are needed across the board.

"What I'm seeing is only inquiry process ongoing, but other processes are not implemented or ongoing."

Amplifying voices

Dr. Sarah Hunt, a professor at UBC's First Nation and Indigenous Studies program who focuses much of her attention on issues concerning Indigenous girls, women and two-spirit people, said it's notable how much time the special rapporteur spent talking specifically about violence against Indigenous women and girls.

"The fact that this was such a huge focus of her visit shows the amount of work that we still have to do," said Hunt.

Sarah Hunt is Kwakwaka’wakw, from the Kwagiulth community in Tsaxis. She holds a PhD from Simon Fraser University and currently works as a professor in the UBC First Nation and Indigenous Studies program. (Supplied by Sarah Hunt)

In laying out her roadmap for change Hunt said it was concerning that Simonovic didn't mention transgender or two-spirit people, or how Indigenous law and principles fit into the equation.

Still, she said the preliminary findings were strong in a lot of ways, and that they closely echo what Indigenous women have been advocating for for decades.

"So I think that this can be used to amplify those long-term advocates in our community," she said. "That's where it can be a real tool for change."

When asked what value she sees in having the special rapporteur call attention to violence against women in Canada, Hunt said she thinks it can be a valuable pressure mechanism for the government to take action, in an area where things have been slow to change.

'I think she really nailed it'

For her part, NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson is taking the special rapporteur's visit and statements as an opportunity to remind the federal government of its responsibility to take action.

"She was only in Canada for 13 days but I really think she really nailed it," said Malcolmson, reflecting on what Simonovic presented in her preliminary findings.

Sheila Malcolmson is the MP for Nanaimo—Ladysmith and critic for women's equality. (Twitter)

She said Canada has made a lot of commitments on the international stage when it comes to the human rights of Indigenous Peoples and sees this visit as a good accountability mechanism for the federal government.

"Yes, it's good to say that you're aligned and that you will honour human rights, but you can't just say it — you have to do it," said Malcolmson.

She said while things like a national action plan on violence against women are important, there are actions that need to, and could, happen immediately — like more domestic violence shelters in First Nations communities, better public transportation in rural areas and more affordable housing.

Malcolmson said the Trudeau government has acknowledged what needs to be done.

"But then when the budget comes, we see that the spending is for the year 2021," she said.

"It's extremely discouraging, for a government that's willing to spend money but somehow not willing to spend it right now in a way that would change immediately the lives of people that need the government's help the most."

Simonovic is expected to issue a final report to the UN Human Rights Council on her findings next year.