OTTAWA - Amnesty International wants the RCMP to begin recording aboriginal identity as part of case files to better help police track and connect cases involving violence against native women.
"It’s really difficult to know if there is a pattern of violence if we don’t (record the aboriginal identity)," said Amnesty spokeswoman Lindsay Mossman who issued the call on International Women’s Day.
Eventually a national strategy on violence against aboriginal women should include provincial and municipal governments directing their police forces to do the same thing, the global rights group said.
In 2004 Amnesty International was one of the first to draw attention to the high rate of violence against aboriginal women in Canada with a case study of nine women who had gone missing or been murdered in Canada. Among them were Helen Betty Osborne, the 19-year-old Manitoba woman murdered in 1971 whose case gave rise to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba. Racism and sexism were blamed for a shoddy police investigation.
In 2009, Amnesty followed up their report with a call for a national plan to address the conditions behind much of the violence: racism, sexism, poverty, poor housing and a lack of access to education.
Mossman said it’s been more than a year since that report and she hasn’t seen much evidence the government paid any attention.
In 2010, Ottawa set aside $10 million to address the issue of missing and murdered women. Some of the money is allocated for community programs on reserves to help women improve their personal safety and find alternatives to high-risk lifestyles.
Almost half of the funding, $4 million, is intended for a new RCMP missing persons’ database that will have an aboriginal component but help police trace and link all missing person cases across the country. The database won’t be up and running until 2013 and critics complain it reinvents the database the Native Women’s Association of Canada already created through its Sisters in Spirit project.
That project, and the database, were shelved last year when their five-year funding agreement with Ottawa expired. The database had compiled the stories of nearly 600 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada in the last 40 years, including at least 75 in Manitoba.
Mossman acknowledged some police forces and provincial and municipal governments have been more responsive. Winnipeg police now report cases of young missing aboriginal women to the media immediately.
In Manitoba, a task force review of missing women’s cases was called for in 2009.
However, Bernadette Smith, whose sister Claudette Osborne has been missing since 2008, said the task force is an unknown to the families of missing aboriginal women in Manitoba.
"Nobody knows how to contact them, and they’ve never contacted any of the families that I know of," said Smith.
She said none of the families she knows are even aware if their loved one’s case is part of the review.
Smith said Amnesty’s call for a national plan of action, including having police record the aboriginal identity of a victim, could force police to recognize immediately when a woman’s aboriginal identity may have played a role in her death or disappearance, and the cultural sensitivities that should be adopted for dealing with the victim’s family.