“Am I next?”
In September, Aboriginal women across Canada took to Twitter and held up signs asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper if they, too, will be murdered.
The campaign — organized by Holly Jarrett, the cousin of Loretta Saunders, an Aboriginal student who was murdered earlier this year — called on Harper to launch a national inquiry into the issue of murdered and missing Aboriginal women.
On Saturday, Sisters in Spirit vigils were held in communities across Canada to honour the growing number of murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls.
Earlier this year, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released a report that said that, in the last 30 years, nearly 1,200 Aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada. According to a report from Public Safety Canada, human traffickers systematically target Aboriginal females, who are more likely to suffer from drug abuse, poverty, and mental health issues.
Despite widespread demands for a national inquiry — with one petition on Change.org racking up nearly 325,000 signatures — Harper has refused, saying the issue is a criminal one.
Now, student groups are joining the calls.
Autumn Johnson, co-president of the Aboriginal Law Students’ Association at U of T, said that a national inquiry “can help to identify problems in the investigations, can be helpful in improving relationships, can help to give a voice to the missing and murdered women and their families, and help provide answers.”
“[It] can also identify gaps or issues in programming and services, identify systemic issues that may exist, review socio-economic factors, and make recommendations for change based on the findings … The vulnerability of Indigenous women as victims of violence and murder is a systemic problem,” Johnson added.
Both Johnson and Zachary Biech, Hoof Clan Leader of U of T’s Native Student Association, are unsurprised by Harper’s repeated refusals to launch a public inquiry. Biech sees it as a political move.
“I feel from Harper’s perspective, it would really be embarrassing on the part of the government to actually inquire some of their failures, and it also highlights the failure of the relationship [with Aboriginals],” Biech said.
Johnson echoed Biech’s sentiment, saying Harper “does not want to commit that level of time and resources to the issue.”
“[He] would not want his government to be in the spotlight for action or inaction which led to preventable deaths of Indigenous women in Canada,” Johnson added.
Najiba Ali Sarder, vice-president, equity of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, said that the issue comes down, in part, to spending cuts for Aboriginal programs.
“Harper has cut countless Aboriginal programs. It isn’t a [coincidence] that there is such a high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. It is a systematic flaw,” she said.
Although New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Thomas Mulcair said that if the NDP were in power, a national inquiry would be held, Biech was skeptical.
“I would like to believe that [the NDP] would hold true on that promise. However, we all know the value of election promises, or rather the lack of value. So for that reason, I would advise caution when fully believing what any political party has to say about that,” he said.
While Aboriginal women are disprortionately targets of crime, Biech urged the public to recognize the other side of the story: Aboriginal women’s strength.
“I would be very cautious of victimizing indigenous women too much in the language of any discourse on the topic because indigenous women are a very important group of people. Particularly indigenous communities have women recognized as key vital centers of the family and the community, and they have been exposed to disproportionately high amounts of risk,” Biech said.
“[T]he resilience and the strength is something that ought to be celebrated as well when talking about this issue because that’s really the end goal … to maintain that resilience and maintain the strength despite the amount of risk and the amount of hardship and, obviously, the murders and bad things that are happening,” he added.