Imagine if the front page story on the London Guardian, the New York Times and Pravda (Moscow) was the same as the Winnipeg Free Press was on Monday. What would people around the world think of Canada if they saw pictures of a murdered 15-year-old aboriginal girl and a homeless aboriginal man who had both been found dead in Winnipeg's Red River on the same day? It is not an image the federal government and Canadians in general want for our country.
Unfortunately, those front-page stories might be the only way First Nations will convince the Conservatives to hold a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.
Thousands of people gathered at the Oodena at The Forks on Tuesday night to mourn and to pay tribute to Faron Hall, a homeless aboriginal man, and Tina Fontaine, whose teenage body was found inside a bag. Those thousands of people will demand the federal government employ the only device the majority of Canadians feel will lead to a full understanding of why 1,200 aboriginal women have gone missing or murdered since 1980 and find ways to address this tragic situation. But requests for a public inquiry have been denied again and again.
Since this issue involves one specifically identified race of people, it should be considered a case of civil rights, and we only need look south of the border to find one way to get a federal government to do what people want it to do.
Back in the early 1960s, African-Americans in the United States were being victimized by poverty and murder. Despite staging marches like the one just held in Winnipeg, they did not have an ally in their federal government because the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert, were more interested in being global statesmen and in dealing with worldwide issues such as the Cold War.
It was only when their efforts were undermined by foreign leaders holding up headlines of freedom riders being beaten while their bus burned, the skin of African-American kids being torn off by water hoses, and African-Americans marching under the simple slogan "I am a man" that the Kennedys realized their credibility as world leaders depended on how they took care of their own citizens at home. When Castro and Khruschev held up newspapers with front-page stories depicting the situation of black people in the U.S., President John Kennedy started seriously moving forward with civil rights legislation.
The fodder for detractors continues as Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Russia and China, as well as Amnesty International, have been quick to reprimand the United States for what is happening in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer killed an unarmed African-American teenager.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have been highly outspoken on the world stage about the crises in Israel and Ukraine. The weight of their words goes up and down with the level of Canada's image abroad. Harper wants to be taken seriously when he talks about human rights, but that becomes a lot more difficult when foreign countries can point to problems in Canada such as the murder of more than 1,000 aboriginal women and the third-world conditions in which many aboriginal people live.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay responded to this latest tragedy by repeating the federal government's position. No public inquiry. If aboriginal leaders can't get what they want despite the support of a majority of other Canadians (according to most recent polls) then they will be forced to direct their efforts toward the world stage, where they seem to receive a more positive reaction. Witness the recent report by the United Nations special rapporteur, which gave prominent attention to the "disturbing phenomenon" of missing and murdered aboriginal women and called on Ottawa to launch "a comprehensive, national inquiry" into the issue of why aboriginal women and girls remain vulnerable to abuse. The report goes on to note the "distressing socio-economic conditions of indigenous peoples" in Canada.
In 1961, when photos of lynchings and beatings of African-Americans were being broadcast worldwide, the Kennedy brothers responded. Here in Canada, aboriginal people had just been given the right to vote, but they needed a pass to leave their reserves and many were forced into residential schools where the history of abuse has just been fully exposed.
Canada was able to keep the treatment of aboriginal people away from the global spotlight back then, but if we want to be taken seriously now, this country must deal with tragedies including missing and murdered aboriginal women.
"There continues to be little to no projects or policies to engage this issue. It continues to be ignored by authorities," said Tuesday's march organizer Niigaan Sinclair. "It has to stop."
If First Nations leaders and their supporters do not get the attention they desire from the federal government, their next best strategy is to make sure the whole world knows what is going on.
Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.