24 January 2012
As a United Nations committee initiates an inquiry procedure into the alarming number of missing and murdered Native women across Canada, human rights groups are hoping that an on-the- ground investigation by the international body will finally help stem systematic violence against Native women.
"We're hoping that by having this inquiry, it will come up with some positive initiatives, like support services for the families who have lost a relative, a daughter or a sister," explained Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC).
"We're hoping that this (violence) will stop, that the police will be more aware and that the perpetrators will realise that they can't continue (to target Native women) because they won't be able to get away with it," she said.
In January and September 2011, NWAC and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) appealed to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women – a group composed of 23 international experts on women's issues – to launch an investigation into missing and murdered Native women in Canada.
To date, NWAC has documented over 600 cases of Native women who have disappeared or been murdered over the past 30 years in Canada. It is also estimated that Aboriginal women experience rates of violence 3.5 times higher, and are five times more likely to die violently, than non-Aboriginal women.
The ongoing situation, the organisations argued, constitutes a severe violation of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and hasn't been properly addressed by the Canadian government.
"(The Canadian government) didn't seem to be doing very much to really investigate the issue, and see what had happened and what was currently going on, and how the policing services could be educated and made to realise that this is an issue that must be dealt with," Corbiere Lavell told IPS, about why NWAC approached the U.N.
"We're hoping that after this U.N. commission comes to investigate that Canada will wake up and say that we have to do something positive," Lavell said.
In a Dec. 16 press release, however, the U.N. Committee specified that it had to date only asked the Canadian government "to cooperate in the examination of information received" on the issue, and "to submit observations with regard to such information."
The Committee also stated that it has yet to determine whether it will conduct a visit of Canadian territory, which, in any case, would need the approval of the Canadian government before going forward. If the Committee does conduct a full inquiry, it would be only the second investigation of its kind, with the first conducted in Mexico five years ago.
Maya Rolbin-Ghanie is a Montreal-based activist with Missing Justice, an organisation that works to draw attention to the issue of missing and murdered Native women.
"There's a lot to indicate that the number is way higher and likely in the thousands. It's an epidemic problem," Rolbin-Ghanie told IPS. "It's not just a bunch of isolated cases of violence. It's not just native people killing each other. It's not just about Native women being targeted, which they are, but it goes way deeper, and it's in Canada's interest to keep it under wraps."
She explained that instead of encouraging research and raising awareness on the issue of violence against Native women, the Canadian government under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has cut funding to organisations helping Native communities.
In 2010, for instance, the Canadian government discontinued its funding of Sisters in Spirit, a NWAC programme that since 2005 had documented the number of missing and murdered Native women.
Instead, the government said it would devote 10 million dollars to a new police centre for missing persons, which will include a database that is only expected to be operational in 2013 and won't solely be dedicated to missing Native women. Police powers would also be increased, including the ability to use wire taps without warrants during emergencies, among other things.
"Rather than actually help Native women, this would further criminalise Native communities," Rolbin-Ghanie said, adding that she was sceptical that the Canadian government would allow the U.N. inquiry to go forward.
"I think that Canada wants to get out of the humiliation it would face if a U.N. inquiry was actually conducted because then it would be very clear that human rights are being violated," she said.
According to Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, the U.N. inquiry presents an opportunity for the Canadian government to not only solve the problem of disappeared and murdered Native women, but to treat Native communities as equal and important parts of Canadian society, as well.
"We're really hoping that this U.N. inquiry is going to bring to the forefront what has been going on, the lack of recognition and the lack of initiative or strategy by Canada to deal with this, to put a strop to missing and murdered women," she said. "We also hope to be able to work together through these various initiatives so that we can become full and participating members in Canada."