Human rights and indigenous groups in Canada are celebrating after Parliament voted unanimously on February 27 to launch a special committee on missing and murdered Native women.
Many groups hope that the committee—approved 278–0, in a rare show of partisan unity—is merely the first step in establishing a long-sought national public inquiry into what advocates say is more than 600 disappearances across the country.
Opposition Member of Parliament (MP) Carolyn Bennett (Liberal) originally submitted the motion on February 14 as hundreds of women rallied for action on the disappearances just steps away, on Parliament Hill, and with similar events held nationwide.
The newly created committee’s mandate will be to “conduct hearings on the critical matter of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and to propose solutions to address the root causes of violence against Indigenous women across the country,” according to the motion.
In filing the motion, which would see the committee report back on February 14, 2014, Bennett told Parliamentarians the time has come to set aside party differences in order to address a festering injustice. The call came not only as aboriginal women rallied for a national inquiry, but also as global One Billion Rising events pushed for an end to violence against women worldwide.
“Unfortunately, it is here at home that we have to deal with this systemic violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada,” Bennett told the House of Commons. “It is important that the rallies today make it clear that this is not just about appalling unfairness and injustice. It is about missing daughters, mothers, aunties, cousins, nieces, real people who have now left a real hole in the hearts of their families and their friends. They want justice. They want prevention. They want the violence to stop. They know it needs a systemic solution.”
The ruling Conservative Party indicated its support from the outset, with the Minister of Justice's Parliamentary Secretary declaring missing and murdered aboriginal woman to be “a very serious concern” of the government.
“This House should recognize, and I believe our government has recognized on many occasions, that aboriginal women and girls in Canada today still, unfortunately, face a significantly greater risk of violence and of suffering more serious and severe violence than other Canadians,” MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay told the House of Commons on February 14. “A disturbingly high number of aboriginal women and girls have also gone missing or been murdered in Canada. We have all heard the expressions of pain and suffering from family members who do not have answers for what has happened. This is something no Canadian should believe is someone else's problem. The government has a responsibility to provide justice for the victims and for their families, and I believe our government has taken this responsibility very seriously, with important action. We must all speak out against this unacceptable violence toward sisters, mothers, daughters, aunts and nieces. Their lives matter, and their deaths must not be ignored.”
The first public reaction to approval of a missing women's committee came on February 28 from the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which welcomed the news.
“The Canadian Human Rights Commission is deeply concerned about the disproportionate number of aboriginal women and girls in Canada who are victims of violence and systemic discrimination,” Acting Chief Commissioner David Langtry said in a statement. “It is vital that society address this issue. If called on, the Canadian Human Rights Commission would welcome the opportunity to assist Parliamentarians in this important effort.”
Likewise, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) urged politicians to collaborate on what National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo called a “critical issue.” Atleo said in a statement that he hopes indigenous people's voices are included in the committee's work and that a core priority of the body's deliberations must be to ensure that “our peoples are safe wherever they live.”
And though a committee falls short of AFN and other groups’ demand for a National Public Commission of Inquiry with powers to conduct a full-scale judicial investigation, Atleo and other advocates described it as a very positive step forward.
“We have no idea if and when the current government will agree to a public inquiry process,” said Claudette Dumont-Smith, executive director of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, to The Globe and Mail. “So at least having a Parliamentary committee in place, and hopefully starting soon, will keep this issue alive in the minds of Canadians and among politicians.”