Missing aboriginal women prompt UN letter

Two women's groups said Tuesday a UN committee will investigate Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women. The government says it has received only a letter from the committee.

Two Canadian groups requested investigation, accusing Canadian government of breaching convention

Participants of the Women's Worlds 2011 congress rallied on Parliament Hill last July, in solidarity with missing and murdered aboriginal women across Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose says a United Nations committee has written to the Canadian government about the issue of murdered and missing aboriginal women, but denied reports that the committee has begun an official investigation.

"At this stage we've received a letter from the committee at the United Nations and we're responding to that," Ambrose said Tuesday during question period.

"I understand from Foreign Affairs that two civil society groups have made a request to a United Nations committee, the committee [is] looking into it and they'll be discussing it in February," Ambrose said.

Earlier Tuesday, two Canadian women's groups issued a press release saying that a UN committee will conduct an inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, composed of 23 independent experts from around the world, is the UN’s main authority on women’s human rights.

Should it come to pass, the inquiry would be the result of requests earlier this year, in January and September, by two Canadian groups.

The Native Women's Association of Canada says more than 600 aboriginal women have gone missing or have been murdered since 1990, and it believes there may be many more.

"The response of law enforcement and other government officials has been slow, often dismissive of reports made by family members of missing women, uncoordinated and generally inadequate," said its president, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, in a release announcing the inquiry.

"These murders and disappearances have their roots in systemic discrimination and in the denial of basic economic and social rights," said Sharon McIvor of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, in the same release.

"Canada has not lived up to its obligations under international human rights law to prevent, investigate and remedy violence against aboriginal women and girls," McIvor said. 

The UN can open an investigation when it believes there have been "grave or systematic" violations of its conventions and the government involved is not seen to be actively resolving the issue. 

The release suggested Canada had violated the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which it was a signatory.

This would be the second investigation of its kind: the first was about systemic discrimination against women in Mexico five years ago. That investigation was seen as motivating government action and the two Canadian groups are hopeful for the same result for aboriginal women in Canada.

In a release, interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel welcomed the investigation, saying that the Conservative government's inaction on the file was "a source of embarrassment for Canada internationally."

"The UN sounded the alarm three years ago and called for action on the part of the government, but nothing was done. We simply can’t rely on this government to seriously address the crisis these aboriginal women are facing," the release said.

Ambrose told the House of Commons that the government does have a murdered and missing aboriginal women's strategy to address systemic issues like racism and poverty.

The minister said the government is funding 30 different community aboriginal organizations across the country "to educate and sensitize and raise awareness about the root causes affecting aboriginal women and violence."

"We not only have created a new RCMP centre for missing persons, but a national website for public tips to help locate missing women," Ambrose said.