Claudette Commanda, a lawyer and University of Ottawa professor, said the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women must examine colonialism’s role. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Missing women inquiry can’t overlook colonialism, observers say

  • August 17, 2016

OTTAWA – The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls needs to address underlying racism and colonialism, observers say.

Deacon Rennie Nahanee, who heads the First Nations ministry in the Vancouver archdiocese, said he hopes the inquiry, whose commissioners were named Aug. 3, will mirror the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in examining systemic causes underlying the issue.

“My own suspicion is it still stems from the residential schools and the colonial history of Canada,” he said.

“When we look at colonialism and its impacts past and present, we do see the systemic effects it has had on aboriginal men and women,” said University of Ottawa professor and lawyer Claudette Commanda.

Colonialism “dispossessed” aboriginal peoples of “the right to be who they are” and their “natural way of life,” and their rights to their land, she said. “When looking at colonialism we have to look at it with a broad lens.”

The federal inquiry will look into the circumstances surrounding 1,200 murdered or missing indigenous women. B.C. Provincial Court Judge Marion Buller, the first female First Nations judge in the province’s history, will lead the commission.

While the inquiry is focused on women and girls, Canada needs to examine “the systemic racism and violence against our men as well,” she said.

Inquests and fact-finding missions that look into what happened in various incidences of racism have not stopped the racism, she said. “Colonialism still continues. Society in general has to stop its thinking and behaviour towards aboriginal peoples.”

“Canada needs one big history lesson,” she said. She noted TRC chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, now a Senator, said Canada has to “accept its dark, colonial history” and without accepting it, it “can’t move forward.”

Commissioners include Michele Audette, former president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association; Qajaq Robinson, a Crown prosecutor in Nunavut, who is fluent in English and Inuktitut; Marilyn Poitras, an assistant professor of law at the University of Saskatchewan, with a background in litigation and treaty implementation; and Brian Eyolfson, from the Couchiching First Nations in Ontario, who at the time of his appointment was serving as deputy director of the Legal Services Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.

With a budget of $53.86 million, the inquiry is expected run until the end of 2018.

Nahanee said he hopes it will examine the so-called Highway of Tears between Prince Rupert, B.C. and Prince George, B.C. where nearly 50 indigenous women disappeared over the past 30 years. He expects it to examine the ongoing victimization of indigenous women and girls in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside.

“Why are these things still happening to First Nations’ women?” Nahanee said. “These are the questions I hope the inquiry will find the answer to. I’m also hoping more Canadians will become aware of what this investigation is all about.”

Nahanee said he hopes the inquiry will have an approach similar to the TRC’s Calls to Action that “called on different segments of society to respond” such as universities, schools and churches to “do their part.”

“The Church is doing something now, especially about prostitution in Vancouver through the social justice office,” he said.

The Church has a number of ministries in the Downtown Eastside to help women “working on the street to show them somebody cares.”

Commanda said the inquiry must place the families of the murdered and missing women at the forefront. Their voices must lead and direct the inquiry, including its recommendations, she said.

The Liberal government launched the inquiry last December, with a consultation with the families. Commanda said the families raised concerns about the murder and disappearance of First Nations girls and women more than a decade ago.

“We must never forget about the families,” she said. “They carry the voices for their murdered and missing loved ones. The families are the frontline workers.”

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