Vancouver, B.C.'s nighttime streets were wet with fresh rain as a dozen members of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) community set out on what they dubbed a walkabout tour through the poorest off-reserve area of Canada, accompanied by Indian Country Today Media Network.
The occasion: a November 22 visit by Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, who is spearheading a cross-country human rights investigation into aboriginal people's situation and has even gone against his own party in supporting calls for a national inquiry into Canada's more than 600 missing and murdered Native women.
Just six days later the 38-year old senator released a video of his own song “Come Back to Me,” which the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation member dedicated to Canada's increasing number of missing women.
“It took a lot of courage for him to stand up,” Michele Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), told ICTMN, noting that he is from a “party that's totally in denial. I don't know what's behind it; is it sincere? I have no idea. But one thing that's clear: he's a public figure who represents a government that's staying really quiet on this national strategy demand. It's an emergency and a crisis.”
In his video, Brazeau repeated his support for a federal public investigation into missing Native women, which this year came under scrutiny by the Organization of American States and the United Nations. As the Senator sang the final lyrics, he even appears to cry, his voice stumbling: “Please come back to me / I want you to know that you're my life.”
In Vancouver, Brazeau visited a safe-drug-injection site, saw a community-run garden and sweat lodge, and met members of a police force often accused of racism.
“We need a national inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women,” Senator Brazeau told ICTMN during the tour. “I will continue to push for a national inquiry. Whether it will happen or not is a different story, but certainly I'm here and I will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my Aboriginal brothers and sisters to call for one, because it's needed. Aboriginal women deserve it, and certainly the victims' families deserve it.”
Brazeau listened intently as the founder of Butterflies in Spirit, a dance performance troupe made up of victims' families, described the personal impact of anti-Native violence, sexism and racism.
“Not only was my cousin's DNA found on Pickton's farm, but I also have a missing auntie,” Lorelei Williams said. “Plus, one of my aunties was actually pushed out of a hotel down here too, but she survived. Violence has been a huge issue with my family. We've done our performance in the middle of Georgia and Granville streets; we performed in front of the federal court during the Missing Women's Inquiry. We want to help family members of missing and murdered women.”
One of the tour organizers echoed Brazeau's call for a federal investigation into the matter.
“The Missing Women's Inquiry was a sham,” explained Sean Kirkham, operations director at the Canadian Foundation for Creative Development and Innovation. “But we'd like to see a national inquiry to address the fact that there are still 600 women out there who are either missing or murdered. It's a large number of women who are unaccounted for. We need to start addressing that issue. That's a message you need to take back to [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper—and tell him personally that this is something you endorse and will push for.”
As another organizer explained, poverty and racism have a devastating and disproportionate impact on indigenous people.
“Aboriginal people make up two percent of Vancouver's population, but in the Downtown Eastside, we make up 10 percent. The closer you get to the core of the Downtown Eastside, we make up towards 35 per cent of the population,” said Scott Clark, executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society (ALIVE). “We call this Ground Zero for urban aboriginal poverty. There's something colonial going on.”
The visit was the latest stop in Brazeau's Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights investigation, which also took him to Saskatoon and Winnipeg.
“We're looking at human rights, specifically for First Nations people who live off-reserve, because obviously we know there has been a lot of discrimination facing First Nations people living off-reserve by different levels of government, and even sometimes by their own First Nations governments,” Brazeau told ICTMN. “At the end of the day, we will send and draft some strong recommendations for the government—and perhaps the different levels of government—to act. Because, while federal and provincial governments fight over jurisdictional issues, our people still are falling in between the cracks. This is a study that’s been almost four years in the making.”
Canada's youngest senator is no stranger to controversy. In June he exiled himself from Twitter after calling a female reporter a “bitch,” the same month that court documents surfaced alleging bullying and sexual harassment in his office, according to the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN). Brazeau is under investigation over alleged misuse of his government housing allowance. Adding to his notoriety, in March he lost a charity-boxing match to Liberal leadership heavyweight Justin Trudeau.
As for his song, Brazeau said he hoped it would be recorded as a victims' fundraiser by a “real singer,” confessing he “cannot sing.” Audette applauded the efforts, despite his admission that Brazeau’s committee lacks teeth, as APTN reported.
“He's inviting an artist to cover his song,” Audette said. “I liked it, personally! It's a move by him to help the families and our stolen sisters. For me, I can cry or get mad, and sometimes I get so frustrated. But we need to wake up every day; it's another day, another challenge. We need more people with us, as partners and allies.”