The sad fate of too many native women

Posted on May 20, 2009 in Child & Family Debates, Equality Debates – Opinion – The sad fate of too many native women
May 20, 2009.   Carol Goar

Twenty-six of the missing aboriginal women turned up dead on Robert Pickton’s pig farm. The bodies of 321 others were found under bridges, in rooming houses, on rural roads, in their apartments. The remaining 173 are unaccounted for.

This is one of the saddest – and most neglected – stories in Canada.

More than 500 aboriginal women have disappeared since 1970. Most were younger than 30.

The facts are finally coming to light, thanks to the digging, checking and collating of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. It has just issued a comprehensive report entitled Voices of our Sisters in the Spirit.

Last week, Liberal MP Anita Neville called on the government to launch an independent investigation into the devastatingly high rate of violence against aboriginal women and girls. “Their plight has been almost entirely ignored for far too long,” she told fellow parliamentarians.

Helena Guergis, minister of state for the status of women, responded on behalf of the government. She pointed out that her department is providing funding to the Native Women’s Association for its research.

That’s true, but the Conservatives are delivering the last instalment of a five-year grant made by the Liberals. More importantly, Guergis didn’t address Neville’s call for an investigation. She couldn’t. That’s Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s job.

Neville said her party would keep pushing.

The Liberals aren’t faultless. Most of the women went missing on their watch. Organizations such as Amnesty International and the Elizabeth Fry Society tried to sound the alarm. But their reports prompted only statements of concern and studies.

The case for action is even more compelling now. The Native Women’s Association has provided the government with an up-to-date national database of every aboriginal woman who has vanished and what is known about her fate.

Last fall, a United Nations human rights committee issued an urgent appeal to the Canadian government to conduct a thorough probe to find out how and why the justice system had failed so many aboriginal women.

Ottawa isn’t solely to blame. Provincial ministers have averted their eyes. The police have dragged their feet. And the media have made little effort to find out why aboriginal women are violently assaulted four times as frequently as non-aboriginal women.

Although most of the disappearances occurred in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba, Ontario had a disproportionately high number – 59 cases or 12 per cent – for its small aboriginal population.

One of the victims profiled in Voices of our Sisters in the Spirit was a Toronto Ojibwa woman. Debbie Sloss was 42 when she died. Her body lay unidentified in the morgue for a month. None of her relatives was notified. The family found out about her death from a band member who heard rumours on the street.

Toronto police told Sloss’s sister she died of a drug overdose. But a coroner’s report showed no sign of alcohol or drugs in her system. Sloss’s daughter Laura would like to know what really happened. While admitting her mother had addiction problems, she doesn’t think drugs were the cause of her death and doesn’t believe the police conducted a serious investigation. “They just passed her off as another dead Indian.”

More than half the murders occurred since 2000. “Aboriginal women deserve no less attention and protection than all other women in Canada – which is why we’re demanding government action now,” Neville said.

A national inquiry is needed. The cycle of violence will not end until policy-makers understand how poverty, homelessness, poor employment prospects, police indifference and racism lead to miserable, truncated lives.

But public pressure is needed even more. The longer Canadians are silent, the higher the death toll will climb.

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