Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stephen Harper and the "S" Word

Uh oh. Prime Minister Harper is using the “s” word again. After the retrieval of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body from the Red River in Winnipeg, and the recent discovery of a decapitated body in Kamloops, calls for a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women were renewed. The Prime Minister’s response: no, there should not be an inquiry, because “ we should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as a crime.”  He is wrong: we should view it as both a crime and as a sociological phenomenon.

If viewing the 1,181 cases of killed or missing aboriginal women over the past 30 years as a societal or systemic failure and viewing them as crimes were mutually exclusive choices, Harper would have a good point.  But of course they are not mutually exclusive, and therefore he does not have a very good point.  Part of the rationale for a judicial inquiry is that aboriginals have good historical reasons for not trusting the government, but have reason to think that they can get a fair shake from the courts. Of course, this government doesn't want to recognize that.

Another point: If murderers were targeting Conservative politicians in wildly disproportionate numbers, would those politicians  be satisfied by the police saying that those crimes are being solved at the same rate as other murders?

British Columbians who have wondered about the slowness with which authorities responded to the disappearance of women on Vancouver’s East Side were not completely satisfied by the conviction of the man who killed them.  What weaknesses and biases within the justice system caused these disappearances to happen for so long?  The string of fatalities along Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert—the “Highway of Tears” – also raises a number of questions: what factors place women at highest risk?  Are most victims prostitutes or drug addicts  engaged in high-risk occupations, or are they simply vulnerable and targeted because they are poor and female and aboriginal?  Is the dismal state of education on reserves to blame? Tina Fontaine liked math and science and was popular at school, but became emotionally troubled after her father died and was placed in foster care..  Loretta Saunders, an Inuit university student killed in Halifax in February, was working on a thesis about missing and murdered aboriginal women at the time she was killed.  

It is not just important to find out who dunnit and punish them – it is important to identify the risk factors for native women and take steps toward prevention that will hopefully stop the steady trickle of targeted killings that take place across this country at a rate of at least three per month. 

If the Native Women’s Association of Canada gathers 23,000 signatures calling for a national inquiry, do they deserve to be ignored?    A formal judicial inquiry would have badly-needed legitimacy in the eyes of both natives and non-natives alike.  It could be used to guide schools and social workers and policy makers about causes, risk factors, and prevention.  It could also be used to raise public awareness and support for education and drug treatment and economic opportunity for First Nations people.  Surely, it is time that this government showed native women more respect, swallowed its pride, and committed some sociology.

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