Treatment of 'most vulnerable' will define society: aboriginal leaders
Published Friday, February 27, 2015 9:06AM EST
Last Updated Friday, February 27, 2015 6:53PM EST
The common message from aboriginal leaders coming out of the first national roundtable on missing and murdered women Friday is that more needs to be done to protect some of Canada's most vulnerable -- but until the federal government is in lockstep, real progress is still a long way off.
Aboriginal leaders from across Canada as well as representatives of the provincial and federal governments met at a downtown Ottawa hotel for the seven-hour meeting -- which fell short of the national inquiry that aboriginal groups, opposition parties and many Canadians have been demanding for years.
Leaders agreed to an action plan and to hold another meeting in less than a year's time. But Betty Ann Lavallee, national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal People, said it's not enough and the group will continue to call for a national inquiry or a royal commission -- something the federal government has so far not supported.
"The bottom line is the spirits of our sisters are not going to rest until we find justice, until justice is done, and neither can we as leaders in aboriginal communities," said Lavallee, speaking to reporters after the round table.
The position was shared by others.
Dawn Harvard, of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said it is an "important battle" worth fighting and she is committed to calling for an indigenous-based national inquiry into the status of aboriginal women.
"We are going to make a difference and we need to make that difference if our girls, our women are going to have a better future," she told reporters.
Terry Audla, the president of the of national Inuit group Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami warned "we will be judged as a society on how we treat our most vulnerable."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was more blunt. Though she said it was "wonderful" to be part of the discussion and to hear from family members of murdered or missing women, but said the end result fell short of what could have been achieved by the group and noted that the group is still lacking "a full federal partner."
"There is more we can do and I feel impatient because I think we know what those things are and we need to push ourselves very hard in the coming months to hold ourselves accountable to our own expectations," Wynne said.
Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch, and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt attended the meetings, though Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not. They held their own news conference in another hotel in Ottawa following the round table.
Leitch called the meeting historic and said the government endorsed the action plan agreed to by members -- the details of which have not yet been released.
"No single community, no individual, no organization or government can end violence again aboriginal women and girls alone. We all have a shared responsibility... and the federal government is committed to doing its part," Leitch said.
When pushed on why the federal has declined to agree to a federal inquiry, Leitch repeatedly called the meeting "historic" and said it was a positive step forward to open the discussion on the issue.
When asked why she and Valcourt held their own news conference, Leitch said they made the decision out of respect for family members of missing or murdered women.
Domestic violence blamed for women's deaths
Leitch came under fire after comments she made earlier this week, suggesting most of the 1,200 deaths and disappearances over the past 30 years are the result of domestic violence.
“We have a good sense of the individuals who are perpetuating these crimes and I think that’s something that’s very, very important for us to take into account, and it allows us also to take action,” Leitch told The Globe and Mail.
“I know we have some initiatives that I would like to move forward on, on men and boys’ campaigns. I’m confident that other provinces and other aboriginal organizations have those, too. Let’s do them together.”
Dr. Dawn Harvard, the interim president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, says there is no clear evidence that most of the missing or murdered women are victims of violence perpetrated by aboriginal men.
She thinks such "misinformation" comes from police reports that have concluded that the perpetrators were likely acquaintances of their victims. That leads some to make the "racist assumption" that those acquaintances must have been aboriginal men.
"Quite frankly, that's just absurd to think that the only friends, acquaintances, colleagues, intimate partners that an aboriginal women might have must be, by definition, an aboriginal man," she told CTV's Canada AM Friday, ahead of the meeting.
"That's just certainly not the case."
At the end of the day, Harvard says the race of the perpetrator is irrelevant. What's more important is acknowledging that there is a crisis among aboriginal women that needs to be addressed.
Betty Ann Lavallee, the national chief of the Congress for Aboriginal Peoples, agrees it isn't fair to assume the majority of these crimes are the result of domestic violence.
"That's not the whole issue. The reality is it's not just aboriginal men who are doing the violence against aboriginal women," she said, highlighting a 2011 incident that recently came to light in which a Manitoba peace officer admitted he arrested an intoxicated aboriginal woman, then returned in his own car to take her back to his place to "pursue a personal relationship."
"I mean, come on; let's deal with reality. The fact of the matter is it's not just aboriginal men," said Lavallee.
"Most of these are occurring in urban cities and through associations with what we'd call unsavoury people, who are using them to further their own gains."
Harvard says it's important to look at the root causes of why women find themselves involved in high-risk lifestyles and associating with dangerous character.
She says it's not a choice, but a consequence of growing up in poverty, with a lack of adequate housing, educations and access to better opportunities.
"Yes, our women are at risk, but they were born at risk. This is not something they chose. They weren't young girls thinking: 'I want to grow up to be homeless'," she said.
"Our women are born into what have been called 'third world conditions' in our communities and that's what's causing the vulnerability."