Feds still haven’t decided how $10-million will be used to stop murdered and missing aboriginal women

AFN national chief Shawn Atleo says Parliament, government, native women’s groups and Amnesty International should create multi-partisan committee to create a national action plan.
Published April 12, 2010

Prime Minister Stephen Harper government allotted $10-million to helping solve the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada but it hasn’t yet said exactly how the money will be used. Critics fear the money will be funnelled through the Justice Department, and say a “horizontal” approach that encompasses several government departments is what’s needed.

“People don’t know where the money is going and there is some concern that it will be just funneled through Justice,” said NDP MP Jean Crowder (Nanaimo-Cowichan, B.C.), her party’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit Affairs Critic.

The Native Women’s Association estimates there are about 520 aboriginal women missing across the country, and some estimates are as high as 3,000. Sisters in Spirit, an organization operating under the NWA umbrella, was created in 2005 with a five year, $5-million commitment from the federal government to collect data relating to the issue and raise public awareness. The Harper government recently announced funding for SIS would end, however, and said there was enough research and there needed to be more action on the file, although the government hasn’t yet said what that action would entail. SIS is currently looking for other funding partners, and Ms. Crowder said she is baffled by the government’s decision to cut its funding.

“There has been certainly research in terms of identifying the number of women that are murdered and missing but I believe that both Amnesty International and others have called for a number of other statistics that are important; they’ve talked about the consistent collection and publication of national stats on the rates of violent crime against indigenous women. That would seem an important statistic to keep because we want to know if any action that’s being taken is having any impact, and numbers are important,” she said.

Ms. Crowder added that it wouldn’t make sense for the government to move the data collection responsibility to another organization because SIS already has the groundwork and infrastructure in place to do the job. Status of Women originally funded SIS, but it no longer has a mandate to fund research.

Ms. Crowder said it’s important that the money still be distributed through Status of Women because if it were to be funneled through the Justice Department or spread out through a number of federal departments then it would lose its focus on missing and murdered aboriginal women. She said other departments need to be brought into the discussion, however, because the issue has many root causes and requires a multilateral approach.

“I think it needs to stay with Status of Women and there needs to be a horizontal initiative. They need to pull in Justice, Public Safety, Indian and Northern Affairs, Health, Human Resources, and have a cross department collaboration because the other piece of this is things get siloed and they don’t get that kind of cross department attention that’s required in order to have that kind of comprehensive national action plan,” she said.

Ms. Crowder said she feels the file should be left in the hands of the Status of Women Office, although she told The Hill Times earlier last week that she didn’t think the minister responsible was the right person to lead the issue.
Helena Guergis (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), resigned her post as junior minister for the Status of Women on Friday, and was kicked out of the Conservative caucus. Prime Minister Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) told reporters on the Hill on Friday that he “became aware of serious allegations regarding the conduct” of Ms. Guergis and had referred the allegations to the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner and to the RCMP.

Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, recently told The Hill Times that a multi-partisan “cross committee” is what’s needed for Parliament to properly address this issue. He said the committee should encompass Status of Women, Justice, Indian Affairs, and Public Safety, and should work with First Nations organizations and First Nations women leaders to create a national action plan. Mr. Atleo said any response to this issue should also include data collection and publication of comprehensive statistics on the rates of violent crime against indigenous women.

“We don’t know how [the federal government] is going to react fully yet,” Mr. Atleo said. “We really want the government to walk with us and work together with the leadership on this and recognize what the Sisters in Spirit have done.”

Ms. Crowder said there is no “one-size-fits-all answer,” but that a lot of the problem is rooted in poverty and lack of support for both women and men. She said missing aboriginal women need to be a higher priority for police, pointing out that B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton was able to kill many aboriginal prostitutes before it showed up on the police’s radar. She said there also needs to be more education and awareness, and funding for things like shelters so that poor aboriginal women have a safe place to go.—With files from Kate Malloy

The Hill Times