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Inquiry into missing women must be more than political theatre

When justice ministers from across Canada met recently in Quebec City, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promised inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls was at the top of the agenda. Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was particularly interested in the perspective of her B.C. counterpart, Suzanne Anton, given the province's recent experience with a similar probe.

That, of course, was the Oppal Commission, headed up by former B.C. attorney-general Wally Oppal, which looked into the disappearance of scores of women, mostly aboriginal, from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside starting in the late-1970s. Many of them were victims of mass murderer Robert Pickton.

Mr. Oppal's report led to 63 recommendations, many focused on the behaviour of the Vancouver Police Department. The force was criticized for the lack of concern it demonstrated toward those who had vanished, a disregard many attributed to the dim view the police held of the poor, often drug-addled aboriginal women who called the Downtown Eastside home.

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Despite Mr. Oppal's best efforts, many in the aboriginal community were not pleased with his commission. Some felt it was not inclusive enough, saying it ignored too many points of view. Others felt the most important thing it accomplished was telling the story of the women themselves – before their lives took a terrible turn.

Which brings us to Ms. Wilson-Raybould's challenge. What does she do with her inquiry that will ensure it produces something worthwhile, and not just an expensive vehicle for people to vent?

In Quebec City, Ms. Anton said it should examine the "economic circumstances of the women" involved. If their financial conditions were better, the minister reasoned, they might not have been vulnerable to predators.

Let's hope this suggestion doesn't typify the quality of input Ms. Raybould-Wilson received. We do not need an inquiry to tell us this. We know the economic circumstances in which most of these women, today and yesterday, find themselves – and they are not good. It is a crisis that every federal government for the past 60 years has recognized but has mostly failed to do anything about, despite some honest efforts.

We know, too, about the rampant drug and alcohol use, violence and depression that plagues many aboriginal communities. We saw it play out in La Loche, Sask. We know about the physical abuse native women endure and from which they routinely flee. We know that's why many of them, some just young teenagers, end up on the downtown streets of big cities, in many cases selling their bodies to eat. This has often been the prelude to their demise.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which produced 94 recommendations, dove to unparalleled depths in examining the impact residential schools had on generations of indigenous people. And we know that experience has undeniable links to the unconscionable circumstances in which many of our indigenous people find themselves today. We know all this. We know unemployment is high in many First Nations communities and child welfare services are insufficient, and that these factors are also, in their own way, tethered to the MMIW phenomenon. We know that education is the key to lifting many aboriginal women from a pitiful cage of despair and desperation.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould knows this. She knows, too, that aboriginal people in this country have been studied to death. There really is no great mystery as to why indigenous women can be at risk of going missing; the answers lie on the reserves and aboriginal communities themselves. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recognized the direness of the situation and the difficulty involved in fixing it. Its recommendations cover almost every aspect of aboriginal life.

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The minister's challenge is to tell us something we don't already know. Failing that, the MMIW inquiry is going to be a costly but ultimately political exercise designed to make us feel less guilty about what is taking place. The government is on it! Something is being done! In the end, however, it will be of little true value and won't make us feel better for long.

EDS NOTE: The first sentence has been clarified to correct an editing error.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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