The murder earlier this month of Tina Fontaine, a wisp of a girl found by Winnipeg police divers who were looking for someone else, has rightly set off a public outcry about the alarming violence against Aboriginal women. Canada’s premiers are meeting this week in Charlottetown, where they have faced renewed calls for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Native girls and women.
The demand for a public inquiry is understandable. But aside from the fact that such gestures too often end up costing millions, take months or years to complete and result in very little fundamental change, calls for an inquiry also ignore the fact that we already have many proposed solutions to the problems plaguing Aboriginal communities — should we care to act on them.
There have been dozens of coroner’s inquests into the murders, suicides and accidental deaths of Aboriginal girls and women, containing hundreds of recommendations on how to prevent such tragedies in the future. Tracia Owen was shuffled between foster homes and family members an estimated 64 times before the 14-year-old hung herself in a Winnipeg garage. The 2008 inquiry into her death produced 28 recommendations. Susan Redhead was 15 when she hung herself at her parents’ home in Shamattawa in northern Manitoba, having been sexually abused by five different men over the course of her short life. Her 2004 inquest ended in 108 recommendations. A $14-million public inquiry into the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair —beaten to death by her parents, left to die on a basement floor and then dumped in a shallow grave — wrapped up earlier this year in Manitoba with more than 60 recommendations.
There have likewise been several inquests and commissions that have tried to tackle the broader issues facing Aboriginal Canadians, whose recommendations have often been resisted by governments and police, or simply ignored. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples spanned five years and cost $60 million with very little to show for it. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the residential school system also has a budget of $60 million. It was originally set to launch in 2007, but was delayed two years. It is set to wrap up next June.
Some of the recommendations already put forth by various commissions and inquiries were ignored because they were too politically sensitive – such as the Royal Commission’s conclusion that governments should recognize the inherent rights of Aboriginal Canadians to control their own land, draft their own legislation, manage their own natural resources, and collect their own taxes. The Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry’s 1991 recommendations for a separate justice system for Aboriginals likewise fell on deaf ears.
Others are less controversial and more easily achieved, such as the RCMP’s recommendation, contained in its own report on murdered Native women earlier this year, that the agency identify Aboriginal communities at high risk for violence against women and then target them with funding and support.
Ironically one of the most comprehensive set of proposed reforms comes from the same people who are now calling for Ottawa to prioritize a national inquiry over action.
Last April, the Assembly of First Nations held a two-day forum exploring violence against Native women and girls. Nearly 400 people participated and the result was a sweeping “national action plan” with more than 100 recommendations, covering everything from treaty rights and self-governance, to better funding for education and welfare, to how to handle cases where band members themselves are implicated in violence.
Here are just 10 of the recommendations:
- Enhance supports for First Nation women in mainstream institutions, including direct services and human resources strategies.
- Launch public education campaign on Indigenous rights that amplifies First Nation women’s voices and connects local struggles and builds solidarity.
- Ensure that community members are included in deliberations on how to end violence, for instance, through round tables where community members can dialogue with their leaders.
- Develop violence response teams and protocols in communities with community agencies and working closely with the police.
- Fund on-reserve shelters on par with provincial shelters and ensure availability and accessibility of shelter services for every First Nation woman, man and child who is in need of a safe place.
- Support First Nation men in understanding and restoring their traditional roles and taking on their responsibilities as fathers through culturally appropriate programs and supports.
- Stress the importance of adults acting as positive role models for children in their community and the need to model healthy behaviour, relationships, and attitudes.
- Encourage the recruitment of First Nation women to increase the First Nation representation on police forces.
- Create a national missing person’s office to coordinate all the activities and disseminate information to families (ongoing response).
- In cases in which the leadership and/or band council members may be implicated, make available appropriate supports and resources to victims and their families, as well as an impartial recourse mechanism to report and address such incidents.
Those are all good ideas that could be enacted without a public inquiry. Yet in expending so much effort on demanding an inquiry, the AFN seems to be signalling that their own solutions are less important than any recommendations that could come out of a government-endorsed process.
Two months before Tina Fontaine went missing from foster care, retired B.C. justice Ted Hughes gave a speech in Victoria urging governments not to let calls for a public inquiry distract them from tackling the issue of violence against Aboriginal women. “This is a time for action not for further study,” he said. Hughes should know. He has overseen more inquests, judicial reviews and commissions than nearly anyone in Canada, including heading two separate public inquiries into provincial child welfare systems in B.C. and Manitoba. As Hughes sees it, the forces behind the problem of violence against Aboriginal women are the same ones that are causing an alarming number of Native children to end up in foster care. They are the same forces that are behind virtually every problem plaguing any Aboriginal community in Canada, namely, he says: “poverty, lack of adequate housing, substance abuse and the absence of educational and economic opportunity.” They require more than just an acknowledgement of historic wrongs, says Hughes, but a concerted effort by all levels of government and all segments of Canadian society to do whatever it takes to tackle such root causes of violence against women.
Hughes has already helped convinced Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger to raise the issue during the premiers’ meeting this week. Whether or not provincial leaders come away with any concrete plan to tackle the problem is another matter. So far, they have pledged support for a roundtable on the issue. But Aboriginal leaders should instead be using this opportunity to pressure premiers into implementing their existing action plan, rather than to push for another inquiry.
The millions of dollars that would be spent on an inquiry could be used for initiatives that could actually help end violence against Aboriginal girls and women. That would do far more to achieve justice for Tina Fontaine than yet another process to explore problems that are already well-documented and draft solutions that already exist.