by Ken Coates, August 3, 2016
Canadians are skeptical of commissions of inquiry. These official investigations have a way of punting today’s problems into the future, in the hope that the passage of time will dull the political sensitivities. The recently announced inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women is a good case in point. Critics worry about the limited scope of the inquiry and are concerned that the police will escape scrutiny. The Aboriginal women who pushed for this inquiry for years appear concerned that the inquiry will not have the time and resources to get to the bottom of systemic violence toward Aboriginal women.
No thinking Canadian doubts that there is a serious problem. The statistics about murdered Aboriginal women are shocking. Acknowledging that much of the violence comes from inside Indigenous communities does nothing to dull the pain and suffering of the women and their families. What has angered Indigenous peoples and their supporters the most is that the extent of the problem has not attracted government scrutiny or official action.
The commission, even with its well-chosen members and substantial resources, carries the substantial and contradictory burdens of high expectations and widespread skepticism. That the members are charged with examining everything from “the systematic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls” and producing “concrete and effective action” to address these deep and profound challenges creates a near-impossible set of obligations, particularly as the Liberal government has given reason to believe that it will act on the resulting recommendations.
It will only take a small number of cases to alert Canadians to the simple reality that Indigenous crimes are not always handled with tact, compassion and concern.
The inquiry will, in my view, end up focusing on two elements. The first is the manner in which Canadian social services, policing and judicial systems managed individual cases. One hopes that the country is open to hearing the shocking stories of system failure, administrative bungling and, one sadly expects, a lack of official attention due to the fact that the victims were Aboriginal women.
Even assuming that many, if not most, of the investigations of the disappearance or murder of Aboriginal women were handled professionally and decently, the country should expect revelations about the mistreatment of Indigenous families, callous neglect of missing Aboriginal women, and practised disinterest in some of the cases of murdered Aboriginal women. It will only take a small number of cases to alert Canadians to the simple reality that Indigenous crimes are not always handled with tact, compassion and concern. Unless our hearts have turned to stone, we will be affected by the tragedy of the women’s deaths and the prolonged anguish ensured by their families.
The other part of the inquiry – and this is the part that has even more potential to rock the nation’s self-image and complacency – will examine the root causes of contemporary Indigenous poverty, marginalization and social difficulty. The much admired Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did a remarkable job of attracting Canadian’s attention to the failings of the Indian residential schools. This inquiry has the potential – and the mandate – to go much further. The issues that will come before it, even if they are well-known to academics, government officials and Indigenous leaders, will strike at the heart of Canada’s self-image and could well provide a national wake-up call to the reality of living as an Indigenous person in Canada.
Indigenous peoples have arrived at a unique moment in Canadian history.
That reality is that Indigenous peoples routinely experience this country as a profoundly racist place. Where the TRC made our institutional failures quite clear, this inquiry will likely lay bare the fundamental injustices that run throughout Canadian society and that limit life choices and opportunities for tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples. Canadians do not like being told that they have not performed with decency and fairness. They had best prepare themselves for a sharp reminder of the darkness of Canada’s past and present.
Indigenous peoples have arrived at a unique moment in Canadian history. No national government in Canadian history has been as committed to improving conditions for Indigenous peoples as the administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party. They want solutions and they are moving toward the co-production of policy with Indigenous peoples, abandoning the idea that the dominant society has all the answers. To the degree that the inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women produces action items that have community support and practical application, this commission could contribute substantially to Canada’s long overdue effort to make major improvements in the quality of life chances for Indigenous peoples. Let us all hope that it succeeds.
Ken Coates is a Munk Senior Fellow, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and Canada Research Chair, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.