Parliament’s Violence Against Indigenous Women committee raising concerns

Published in Windspeaker newspaper | June 2013 | Circulation: 145,000

Michèle Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada. Photo by David P. Ball

Michèle Audette, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Photo by David P. Ball

The launch of Parliament’s Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women was applauded as a rare show of political consensus, drawing unanimous all-party support on Feb. 27.

Since then, it has met every Thursday evening, adopting a three-step framework–studying root causes of violence, front-line services, and prevention–and has heard from federal departments, police, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

But nearly halfway through its year-long mandate, some of the country’s foremost missing women advocates are expressing doubts about the special committee, which waited four months to hear testimony from a victims’ family advocate. Families of Sister in Spirit co-founder Bridget Tolley finally addressed a meeting on June 13.

Now, as Members of Parliament head off for several months of summer holidays, the committee has used up a significant chunk of its year-long mandate to discuss the crisis of an estimated 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and widespread violence.

“The families are not involved again,” said Tolley. “They only have a year. The special committee should be done by the end of March, but nothing’s been happening.

“Even the special committee doesn’t know where they’re going, where their budget is, or if they’re allowed to travel… We can tell that this committee already is not going to be doing too much. It’s time for action. Even a public inquiry is going to take too long; we’re going to wait years!”

Likewise, fellow advocate Gladys Radek, with Tears4Justice told Windspeaker she worries the committee “is simply another level of bureaucracy the government has in place to make people think they are actually doing something to prevent violence against women.” She has attended many of the weekly meetings, which are mostly open to the public.

“From what I have seen so far, everything they are trying to accomplish cannot and will not be addressed,” Radek worried. “As much as we appreciate the efforts of those who are trying to make sense of all of this, I am afraid this commission is truly a waste of time.”
The special committee was first put to the House of Commons by Liberal Aboriginal critic Carolyn Bennett on Feb. 14. That day, thousands of missing women advocates rallied across Canada, including a group of victims’ families who knocked on the Prime Minister Office doors demanding a meeting, and several hundred marching in Vancouver.

Bennett’s motion called for a committee to “conduct hearings on the critical matter of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and to propose solutions to address the root causes of violence against Indigenous women across the country.”

Two weeks later, Bennett’s motion passed with unanimous support – 278-0 – and Parliament’s website lists the committee’s creation date as Feb. 27. But despite proposing the committee herself, Bennett has her own doubts about the way it is going about its work.

“Obviously, we’re concerned,” she admitted. “I had hoped that we might be able to do this quite differently, beginning with listening to the families.

“Those families have been through a great deal; they have very important insights and facts. When we embarked on this, my view was that we can’t let these families down again… They’ve been studied to death. Now, it’s time for action.”

Bennett said that hearing from missing women’s advocates like the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and Families of Sisters in Spirit has been a promising sign for the committee, even if it was held relatively late in a process which initially focused mainly on government departments.

Now the group is approaching its mid-point, advocates are continuing to push for greater families’ involvement, in order to ensure that concrete proposals for change are on the table when the committee makes its final recommendations.

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