A recent national symposium hosted by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA), and the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law (CJWL) was held in Ottawa to bring together international human rights experts.
These experts came from diverse fields, including the United Nations (UN) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, advisor to the White House on violence against women was in attendance, as were indigenous women leaders, family members, and grassroots feminist activists from across Canada.
Presentations and dialogues culminated in the creation of 22 recommendations regarding the design and implementation of the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women. Each recommendation must be implemented to ensure a successful outcome from this national investigation.
According to Dawn Lavell-Harvard, President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, “The Symposium identified the crux of this issue – that equality will never be achieved until gendered, racialized and sexualized violence against Indigenous women and girls as perpetrated by both indigenous and non-Indigenous men, and by representatives of the state, is stopped. That requires action by all levels of government in Canada.”
An overview of the recommendations begins with the fundamental need to establish a clear and distinct focus on the gendered and racialized violence experienced by indigenous women and girls. Rooted in colonization and perpetuated through ingrained patriarchal systems and institutions, the violence indigenous women and girls experience is both distinctive and unrelenting.
The lives of murdered and disappeared indigenous men and boys are equally important and deserves investigation. However, the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls inquiry is not the proper forum. Two separate and distinct national inquiries need to be held in order to adequately address the unique circumstances leading to the disappearances and murders of indigenous women and men.
The national inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls needs to acknowledge and address the harm inflicted on family and community members. Safe, supportive spaces should be made available where family and community members can tell their stories and seek redress, healing, ceremony, memorialization, and compensation. Services available to participants should include counselling, financial support, and legal assistance as required.
The national scope of the investigation should include federal, provincial, territorial and indigenous jurisdictions. This ensures the inquiry can scrutinize conduct and policies at every level of government and provide corrective actions as necessary.
Failures within policing and the justice system to protect indigenous women and girls from perpetrators as well as state violence must be thoroughly investigated. This includes direct violence committed by police or other justice system officials as well as state representatives in positions of authority. All perpetrators must be held accountable for their actions.
Since colonization sexualized stereotyping, sexual exploitation and trafficking have had lasting impacts on the lives of indigenous women and girls. These abuses enable violence against indigenous women and girls to continue.
The inquiry needs to examine the social and economic inequalities that leads to poverty, namely disadvantaged social and economic conditions in housing, food security, education, employment, and child welfare. These factors play a significant role in the over-representation of Indigenous women within the prison system as well.
Lastly, the inquiry needs to establish a human rights framework to ensure previous recommendations from the UN and the IACHR are finally implemented, and that all proposed solutions are measured against human rights standards including women’s rights and the rights of indigenous peoples.
Lavell-Harvard observed, “Gendered, sexualized and racialized violence against indigenous women and girls violates our commitments to equality and causes lasting inter-generational harm to families, communities. These 22 recommendations establish the measures necessary to address this crisis effectively and to begin to reverse the cycle of violence.”
To be truly effective, leadership for the inquiry must come from feminist indigenous women knowledgeable of human rights, with vision, and a firm grasp of the inequalities that continue to support multigenerational violence against Indigenous women.
For over 40 years Indigenous women have advocated for murdered and missing First Nations, Metis, Inuit, and all women and girls who identify as indigenous, irrespective of whether they are status Indian or formally recognized in their Indigenous communities of origin. These women have lived experience. They are the experts. They need to take the lead throughout the entire process including the inquiry, implementation of recommendations, follow-up evaluations and modifications.
Having women with extensive knowledge and lived experience in charge of the process makes it easier for the inquiry to establish an independent process and voice. Hopefully, that distance prevents unnecessary government interference.
Allies including Indigenous, women’s, human rights, and other civil society organizations will be given the opportunity to contribute their expertise at various hearings to be held across the country.
The recommendations need to have mandatory implementation to ensure they are acted upon in a timely fashion and not just shelved to collect dust. Continuous monitoring to ensure the recommendations remain in place or are amended as required would prevent government policy and institutions from becoming complacent.
The 22 recommendations found in the document, The National Inquiry on Murders and Disappearances of Indigenous Women and Girls: Recommendations from the Symposium on Planning for Change – Towards a National Inquiry and an Effective National Action Plan should be seriously considered by the federal government as a substantive foundation for the national inquiry.
This inquiry provides Canada the opportunity to remedy one more atrocity endured by generations of indigenous peoples. It’s time to listen to those with lived experience and do this right because we only have one chance to make amends.