Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women
“I think we should not view this as a sociological phenomenon, I think we should view it as a crime. It is a crime against innocent people and it needs to be addressed as such.”
This was the response Prime Minister Harper made in August 2014 when asked about creating a federal public inquiry into the growing number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women following the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine.
From 1980 to 2014 there were 1,181 cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. They represent only 4.3 per cent of the population but made up 11.3 per cent of missing women and 16 per cent of female homicide victims.
The government has claimed that a federal public inquiry is unnecessary and that the issue has been negatively reframed by the Left. The government claims that an inquiry is unnecessary because murder clearance rates between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal victims are almost identical (88 per cent and 89 per cent). It is also argued that it would divert resources and community focus away from active programs that are already providing improvements to the quality of life for members of First Nations communities.
In December 2014, Harper emphasized that the government had been taking action against the (criminal) victimization of First Nations people by increasing penalties for violent crime, extending the Human Rights Act to First Nations members on reserves, and legally enshrining matrimonial property rights. Furthermore, he claimed that any massive shift in present domestic policy towards Aboriginals would be harmful. In Harper’s opinion, political reform needs to occur incrementally to ensure stability, although it may also be because it has been lobbied by political opponents hoping to make them appear intolerant or incapable in the lead up to the next federal election. Ultimately, Harper’s Conservatives claim that the discrepancy in criminal victimization is an issue that will be eventually resolved through selective criminal and social reforms.
Critics of Prime Minister Harper – ranging from the newly-elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau – argue that not enough has been done to resolve this issue. They point to the fact that while rates for homicide and missing persons per capita declined considerably between 1984 and 2012, there has been nearly no change in rates of murdered or missing persons for Aboriginal people. Moreover, Aboriginal women are more likely to be killed by an acquaintance; their potential offenders are more likely to utilize an intoxicant; their potential offenders are more likely to have a criminal record; and their murders are more likely to have been preceded by an assault or sexual assault. Critics argue that the significance of those differences represents the necessity of an alternative approach to resolving and preventing violent activity.
Based on the present case it’s clear that societal and cultural factors need to be investigated to determine an appropriate policing response. Understanding how a specific ethnic sub-group tends to be victimized makes it considerably easier to draft a policy to counter that victimization.
This has succeeded in various forms. One example is William Bratton’s policy of having a police force that was reflective – and sensitive to the needs – of Los Angeles and New York’s ethnic makeup. Another is the target-specific approaches in handling Vietnamese organized crime syndicates and their extortion of recent Asian immigrants in Canada. The hesitance of the Conservative government to engage in any research that will directly improve police tactics could only seem to be justified by their apparent dogmatic belief that criminal activity is an individualistic action that cannot be contextualized in a social setting. This belief is absurd and is incredibly dangerous not only because it fails to properly address the harms that First Nations women face, but also because it purports ignorance in policymaking. The Canadian government needs to accept that additional information is necessary to resolve this problem.
James Omran (1L) is a contributor to Juris Diction.