MPs mourn the loss of Loretta Saunders

The sketch: Death and politics

In QP, emotion and policy meet practicality

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On Wednesday afternoon, the body of Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuk woman and university student who was studying the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women, was found near a highway just west of Salisbury, New Brunswick.

On Thursday afternoon, her death was invoked on the floor of the House of Commons.

“Mr. Speaker, the tragic death of Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman from Labrador, is felt deeply in my province as it is across Canada and with every member of this House. As one indigenous leader put it: ‘There’s something wrong in Canada if aboriginal people have to live this fate,’ ” reported the NDP’s Ryan Cleary, the MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl. “We here, the elected representatives of the people, have a duty to act. Will the government agree to call a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women?”

The New Democrats stood and applauded.

Kellie Leitch, the Labour Minister and Minister for the Status of Women, would respond for the government side.

“Mr. Speaker, first, let me express my condolences to the family and friends of Loretta Saunders,” Ms. Leitch explained. “The one thing I will note is that our government has taken concrete action to deal with the tragic issue of murdered and missing aboriginal women. In fact, in economic action plan 2014, we would invest an additional $25 million to deal with this tragic issue.”

There was some grumbling from the NDP side.

“What I say to the member opposite is that we have taken action, and we will continue to do so,” she said and then she turned to look directly at the opposition and pumped her fist in their direction. “Why do you not stand up for aboriginal women?”

The Speaker was compelled to remind the minister that it was improper to refer to other MPs directly.

The NDP’s Megan Leslie stood now with tears in her eyes.

“Mr. Speaker, Loretta Saunders was writing her university thesis on missing and murdered indigenous women when she went missing herself. Today, our community mourns,” she said, her voice wavering. “Over 800 indigenous women have been murdered or have gone missing since 1990. It is time for us to acknowledge this crisis and for us to act. Will the government establish a national action plan on violence against women?”

The New Democrats, Liberals and Elizabeth May stood and applauded.

Ms. Leitch returned to her feet to make her side’s case.

“Mr. Speaker, as the member opposite mentioned, I think we all mourn when a family loses a loved one. As I mentioned before, we express our condolences. I express my condolences to the family of this young women,” she said. “With respect to action, our government has taken action. We have invested in economic action plan 2014. We have invested additional funds with respect to a DNA-based missing-persons index. We have taken action. In fact, this government has focused substantially on action, and we encourage the opposition members to join us in that action.”

There were more grumbles and then groans.

The issue here is not new, but it was now newly freighted. A special committee of Parliament has been assigned to the topic of violence against indigenous women. The opposition parties (and aboriginal groups and the premiers) would like for there to be an inquiry. The government believes differently. (Last fall, a Conservative MP expressed support for an inquiry.)

And this is a place of politics, where life and the professional practice of politics meet—where emotion and policy and practicality mix.

The NDP’s Jean Crowder took a turn and Ms. Leitch responded and then Romeo Saganash stood for the official opposition.

“We waited too long to put light on the residential schools,” said Mr. Saganash, who spent ten years in a residential school. He suggested the government avoid repeating that mistake.

Ms. Leitch reminded the House of the government’s actions and repeated her condolences and then, in doing her job, she perhaps put a foot down awkwardly.

“I will say though, sir, yet again, we have taken action. We will continue to do that,” she said. “There have been multiple actions taken by this government, all of which the opposition looked not to support.”

The opposition side howled. There were cries of “Shame!” and “Sit down!” The Speaker was compelled to intervene and call for order.

“As I mentioned, Mr. Speaker,” Ms. Leitch continued, “we have taken action in this budget alone, budget 2014. We encourage the opposition to support that budget.”

It would be necessary here to parse the precise meaning of voting records (and the meaning of a budget vote), but it would probably be a bit much to consider either side the villain here—or at least to make that conclusion too easily. Maybe Ms. Leitch misread the mood of the moment. Maybe this is just how this is supposed to work. And maybe there is merely a difference of opinion about how best to go about addressing what we can all agree is a tragedy.

With that the House moved on to other matters.

Shortly after Question Period, Justice Minister Peter MacKay crossed the aisle and offered a kind word to Ms. Leslie.

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