Missing, murdered indigenous women an election issue for all Canadians, advocates say

A national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women is not just an aboriginal issue and should be on all Canadians' minds when they cast their ballots on Monday, the Native Women's Association of Canada says.

Deaths, disappearances of First Nations, Métis and Inuit women and girls a 'fundamental human rights issue'

Artist Dave Fadden donated a print of his painting Scream of the Silenced to the Akwesasne First Nation to raise money in support of the upcoming Walking With Our Sisters travelling art exhibit. The painting is a mosaic of tiny intricate designs, representing the more than 1,000 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

The need for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women is not just an aboriginal issue and should be on all Canadians' minds when they cast their ballots on Monday, the Native Women's Association of Canada says.

"So long as there is any group of people in Canada who are not safe, we really cannot all consider ourselves safe," said the association's president Dawn Harvard in an interview with CBC News. "We need to make sure we are protecting and doing right by the most vulnerable members of our population."
Dawn Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, says missing and murdered indigenous women should be a 'mainstream' election issue. (Nicole Ireland/CBC )

Calls for an inquiry have intensified since the release of several reports over the last year, including a 2014 RCMP report that found aboriginal women are "over-represented among Canada's murdered and missing women."

The report found nearly 1,200 documented cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls between 1980 and 2012, a number the RCMP said "exceeds previous public estimates." A 2015 United Nations report found that young First Nations, Métis and Inuit women were five times more likely to die under violent circumstances than their non-aboriginal counterparts.

"This is a fundamental human rights issue," said Harvard. "How can you look at Canada as a positive human rights defender around the world if we are violating the human rights of our people right here?"

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The Liberal Party, the NDP and the Green Party have pledged to call a national inquiry if elected. The Conservative Party has maintained its pre-election campaign position that an inquiry isn't necessary, saying there have already been many reports on the issue and that it is taking action instead, citing stronger law enforcement and family-violence prevention initiatives as examples.

But in 2014, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples called on the Canadian government to "undertake a comprehensive, nationwide inquiry ... organized in consultation with Indigenous Peoples."

"Bearing in mind the important steps already taken to inquire into the disturbing phenomenon of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls and to develop measures to address this problem, the federal government should undertake a comprehensive, nationwide inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, organized in consultation with indigenous peoples."

– UN report: The Situation of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, May 2014

During the election campaign, the Native Women's Association of Canada has spoken to young people, unions, church groups and "anybody who would listen" about the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women, Harvard said, and has received "overwhelming support" for an inquiry.

"So many people are shocked when they realize that this thing is happening right in our own backyards," she said. "Once people know what's happening, they want to do the right thing. They're appalled and they want to put an end to this.

"It's not that people are unfeeling. It's just that up until this point, [the issue] has been so effectively hidden, so effectively swept under the rug that the average Canadian … [is] pointed to look at oppression of women in other countries so that they're not looking at what's going on right here in Canada."

'Politicians need to care'

Tanya Lalonde from Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement in Alberta also believes that non-native Canadians care about missing and murdered aboriginal women, once they become aware of the issue. 

Tanya Lalonde, president of the Liberal Party's Aboriginal People's Commission in Quebec, says she finds it 'heartening' that people are talking about the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women during this election campaign. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Now living in Montreal, the McGill University social work graduate decided to become politically active to make sure indigenous voices are heard in government and chose to work with the Liberal Party as an aboriginal advocate.  

This election is different than any other, Lalonde said, because the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women has actually been talked about on the campaign trail.  

"What's been really heartening for me as an indigenous young person [is] watching these issues coming to the forefront and just realizing that there are people standing with us and standing up for us," she said. 

"I think when your issues are not heard, then you feel like you don't matter and you feel invisible."

At Akwesasne First Nation near Cornwall, Ont., Sarah Rourke has been thinking a lot about missing and murdered indigenous women as she helps co-ordinate the visit of the travelling art exhibit Walking With Our Sisters in November. The exhibit features more than 1,700 hand-beaded tops of moccasins, representing the unfinished journeys of aboriginal women and girls who have disappeared or been murdered.  

Sarah Rourke, director of the Native North American Travelling College at Akwesasne First Nation, is helping to prepare for the November arrival of the Walking With Our Sisters travelling art exhibit. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Part of the preparation, Rourke said, is to ensure support is available for Akwesasne residents attending the deeply emotional event.   

"When I have a daughter, I am going to be worried if she leaves my home and goes to visit somewhere. It is a real reality that she may be murdered or missing," Rourke said. "That's a fear for me, it's a fear for my family, it's a fear for community members."

Unlike Lalonde, Rourke is not involved in non-native politics. But the federal parties' positions on an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and whether those positions influence Canadian voters, matter to her.  

"It makes a difference in my heart that they should care enough to ask where our women are," Rourke said. "Anybody should be concerned.  Non-native Canadians, native Canadians … politicians need to care about all Canadians." 

"These [indigenous women and girls] are people," she added. "Please humanize this. Please make this something that matters to you."   

'Judicial power' of inquiry needed

A formal inquiry is essential, Harvard said, because of the "judicial power" it holds to uncover facts through subpoenas. 

That legal weight, she said, "forced" police officers to reveal information that would otherwise have been considered confidential in the 2012 British Columbia inquiry into women murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton. That inquiry found that investigators had failed the victims, who were disproportionately aboriginal.   

A national inquiry is also necessary, Harvard said, to educate Canadians about the scope of the problem.

"You need the inquiry to really expose the truth, and that's how we're going to have long-term effective change," she said.

But immediate steps are also needed, Harvard said, to prevent more women and girls from being killed or disappearing. She called the Conservative Party's argument that it is taking action instead of holding an inquiry a "false paradox."

"When you go in to see a doctor, never would you be positioned to have the doctor say, 'Well you can have a diagnostic test or you can have treatment but you can't have both,'" Harvard said. "It can't be an either-or and it needs to go together so that whatever outcome we have, whatever national action plan, is well-informed and effective and addressing the real causes."

Harvard said she hopes Canadians will talk to their political candidates about missing and murdered aboriginal women.   

"It's really important to make this a mainstream issue," she said. "This is not a feminist issue, this is not even an aboriginal issue. This needs to be a Canadian issue."

Sarah Rourke learned to bead so she could contribute to Akwesasne First Nation's collaborative art project to honour missing and murdered indigenous women, which will be displayed when the Walking With Our Sisters travelling exhibit arrives in the community in November. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)