Advocates call for national action on missing women

OTTAWA - The federal government should regard some of the hundreds of documented cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women as a human smuggling issue and develop a national strategy to solve the crimes, says the senior lawyer for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

{mosinfo by=(default) divider=(default) date=(default) class=(default)} But critics also say provincial governments, including Ontario’s, are also responsible through their jurisdiction over police services, criminal investigations, and prosecutions.

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson brought the tragic and mysterious issue to the foreground recently when his office disclosed that he plans “additional action” on the hundreds of cases brought to light by the Sisters in Spirit campaign of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

In British Columbia, meanwhile, the government has called an inquiry into police actions on the issue during the five years preceding serial killer Robert Pickton’s arrest in a number of cases.

The organization published a report earlier this year on 582 instances of murdered and missing aboriginal women compiled from a database that reaches back to the first recorded case it could track through police and government records: an aboriginal woman killed in 1940. Most of the cases, however, go back only to the 1970s.

Homicides account for 393 of the 582 cases in the national database. Authorities have cleared just 53 per cent of them by laying charges. After accounting for the offender’s suicide or a small number of cases in which police logged the death as suspicious but there was no definitive ruling of murder, 39.4 per cent of the homicides remain unsolved.

Of the remaining 189 aboriginal women who disappeared, 115 remain missing today, Sisters in Spirit director Kate Rexe tells Law Times. Of those women, 47 disappeared during the past 10 years.

Although the limited public attention to the tragedy has centred largely on Western Canada, 70 of the women were either murdered or went missing in Ontario, according to the Native Women’s Association report.

Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel for the CCLA, says the absence of leadership and targeted action by Nicholson is puzzling considering how much attention and commentary the Conservative government gives to the rights of crime victims at large.

“It’s a victims-of-crime issue, which does require federal leadership in a way,” Des Rosiers says. “They’ve been active on improving [legislation for] victims of crime, and this is a clear issue where victims of crime are not there to complain. They’ve disappeared.”

Des Rosiers believes the issue also relates to a key concern on the public agenda right now. “One of the ways to look at this is the way we worry as a society about human smuggling,” she says. “Maybe we should look inside and not on the outside. I think some of the aboriginal women that are being exploited here are, in a sense, trafficked.”

The difficult job of tracking the aboriginal cases began in 2004 with a review of more than 740 known instances of missing and murdered women in Canada.

Of those, 582 met the criteria for inclusion in the Sisters in Spirit database: the women or girls were aboriginal; they lived as women, including transgender and transsexual people; they were missing or died as a result of homicide, negligence or suspicious circumstances; and they were born in or connected to a community in Canada.

“Especially from the year 2000 to the year 2004, there were a lot of communities talking about [how] there’s something happening to our women,” Rexe says. “They seem to be going missing. We don’t know where they’ve gone. There are a lot of murders that are turning up.”

The study found that aboriginal women are seven times more likely to be murdered than non-aboriginal women. Nevertheless, Rexe says successive federal and provincial governments have failed to address the socio-economic, educational, and even racist conditions that determine the nature of aboriginals’ experiences with the justice system.

A spokeswoman for Nicholson declined to reveal what measures Nicholson plans. “The government is committed to ensuring that all women in Canada, including aboriginal women, are safe and secure regardless of the community in which they live,” Nicholson’s press secretary Pamela Stephens tells Law Times.

“This is a pressing concern that cuts across many different sectors, including the justice system, public safety, and policing, [as well as] gender issues and women’s rights.”

In the meantime, a spokesman for Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General says the province has pressed Ottawa for action at the federal level.

“The Ontario minister for aboriginal affairs and the minister responsible for women’s issues have called on the federal government to implement a national response to the concerns being raised,” says Brendan Crawley.

 “We have not been provided with information from the federal government on anything they may have planned with respect to murdered and missing women.”

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