Looking Beyond a National Inquiry

Commentary, Joseph Quesnel

The Assembly of First Nations is proposing a national public inquiry to address the grave situation facing Aboriginal women in Canada. While many believe that a national inquiry is the answer, that may not in fact be the case.

The issue is a serious one. Indeed, violence against Aboriginal women, and in particular the long list of those murdered and missing, is such a serious matter that it is difficult to be level-headed when discussing it. The issue has become so clouded with emotion that to question the value of a national inquiry is highly risky politically. But is it wrong to be concerned that a national inquiry would simply repeat what we already know, or would serve as an opportunity for political grandstanding by those with other agendas?

Rather than focus all of our energies on an inquiry as the sole solution, let us first examine the societal problems that have directly contributed to the number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women throughout Canada — problems that are too often ignored.

One of those problems is the ongoing marginalization of Indigenous women, not least within their own communities. Aboriginal women are literally at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in Canadian society. This is one of the reasons they are specifically targeted.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt was in hot water recently for comments he made about the issue. When addressing the possible causes of violence against Aboriginal women, Valcourt said part of the problem was that some Aboriginal men have a “lack of respect” toward women on reserve. He added, “So, you know, if the guys grow up believing that women have no rights, that’s how they are treated.”

Indigenous critics responded angrily. But while the minister might have chosen his words better, it remains true that some of these communities could do more to alleviate the problem of female marginalization and address violence against women on the reserve. Perhaps this is where Ottawa can invest more resources.

Recently, National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) stated Aboriginal men who have “lost their way” need to help prevent the deaths and disappearances of Aboriginal women.

Many of these men need to deal with the legacy of the residential schools system, or break cycles of addiction and violence in their own lives. Money could more effectively be allocated to wellness and treatment centres to improve the lives of people who experienced severe trauma at the hands of the residential school system.

A Frontier Centre study of First Nations communities throughout the Prairies confirmed that many reserve residents do feel women are marginalized in their communities. Survey respondents were asked if band governments were doing enough to protect women from violence. A troubling 42 per cent of respondents (1,090 were asked) across the provinces said “not really” or “never.”

The survey also asked about the political position of women within the community. Respondents were asked if women were involved in community decision-making. Only 25 per cent said “definitely.” Approximately 30 per cent said “perhaps” and 34 per cent responded “not really” or “never.”

The problem was compounded in the past by the lack of property rights for women on reserve. They were placed in a vulnerable position in the event of a marital breakdown, since provincial matrimonial laws providing for the equal sharing of possessions do not apply on reserves. Women who were victims of domestic violence were even more vulnerable, as the home was often in the male spouse’s name. This problem was resolved through the passage of federal legislation, Bill S-2, which granted on-reserve women access to property rights.

Of course, many Aboriginal women do not live on reserves. Women both on and off reserve need the sort of access to education and expanded economic opportunity that will make them less prone to exploitation, as well as secure housing and shelters. Police services should be reformed to identify those at risk and better respond to incidents of violence.

While one may question the need for a national inquiry, it is beyond question that advancing the rights of vulnerable Aboriginal women is part of the solution to combating violence against Aboriginal women.

This op ed was originally published by The National Post on Tuesday, February 17, 2015: http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/joseph-quesnel-looking-beyond-a-national-inquiry