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The scope of a national inquiry

How would it operate if it were held?

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If 500 or 600 or 824 missing and murdered aboriginal women didn't trigger a national inquiry, it's not clear whether 1,181 will.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said his government is not inclined to convene a national probe into the epidemic of violence against indigenous women, though every premier, most opposition politicians, nearly all indigenous leaders and now a United Nations envoy say one is needed.

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Those voices will only grow louder, armed with a definitive tally of the dead and disappeared, gleaned from files kept by every police force in the country over the last generation.

But if Canada called a inquiry, what would it do, exactly? Even those who support a national airing of the issue acknowledge the mechanics are deeply problematic.

In releasing their report, RCMP were careful to sidestep inquiry questions, saying the matter is the domain of their political masters. But the RCMP report, deceptively thin, suggests just how huge any national investigation into missing and murdered women would need to be, and how many thorny questions it would face.

The gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal victims is vast and ugly. Aboriginal slaying victims are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to have been on drugs or alcohol and more likely to be sexually assaulted during the course of being killed. Compared with non-aboriginal women, they are more likely to be killed by an acquaintance -- a friend, neighbour, criminal associate -- than by a husband or partner. Aboriginal women are twice as likely to be beaten to death, an angry kind of killing, and their bodies are twice as likely to be dumped in an open area, as we've seen in Winnipeg in recent years.

Murders overall are down, except among aboriginal women. Those are up. Why this is, why aboriginal women linger on the dangerous margins of Canadian life, is the one question any national inquiry would be obliged to tackle if it is to claim any legitimacy or effect lasting change.

Doing that would raise questions about racism, the Indian Act, decades of chronic underfunding, on-reserve conditions that push women into cities and Canada's colonial legacy. It would be an inquiry about everything. So far, Canadians have been largely unwilling to tackle those questions, as evidenced by the modest reconciliation that's emerged from five years of the residential schools truth-and-reconciliation process.

Aboriginal men would have to answer for the violence, exploitation and abuse they perpetrate on their own women in the form of gangs or under the guise of love.

Canada ventured into these waters in the 1990s, when the seminal Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples spent $60 million criss-crossing the country investigating the state of indigenous Canadians. It drafted a 4,000-page report that sparked little real action and reads like it could have been written yesterday.

More successful have been national inquiries with limited scope -- the Gomery inquiry into the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the tainted-blood inquiry of the mid-1990s and even provincial inquiries such as Manitoba's look at the death of Phoenix Sinclair.

But even tightly focusing the inquiry on police actions is difficult. The RCMP report says clearance rates for aboriginal and non-aboriginal homicides are the same.

A national inquiry that looks only at police conduct means studying dozens of police forces, hundreds of cases and navigating the confidentiality of ongoing investigations.

Jason Gratl, a Vancouver lawyer who represented Downtown Eastside groups in the Pickton inquiry, said it's impossible to consider police conduct without context: "From the sheer numbers alone, we know that aboriginal women are not receiving equal protection of the law. Somewhere, the system has failed them."

The Pickton inquiry, though criticized, probed how police handled cases of missing women. Since then, police forces have made strides, including Winnipeg, where Project Devote is tackling cold cases involving mostly indigenous women.

Calls for an inquiry have started to trump nearly every other issue on the agenda of indigenous leaders.

If nothing else, an inquiry would give voice to the families ofvictims, much like the truth-and-reconciliation process gave voice to residential-school survivors, and in the process uncovered a lot of hidden history.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 A4

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