Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Silent screams, stolen sisters

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How ironic that Valentine's Day can be a source of so much pain for so many. Sharon Johnson, an aboriginal woman and principal organizer of the annual Full Moon Memory Walk held this year on that day in Thunder Bay is well-acquainted with that pain. The grief is a constant companion. The body of her 18-year-old sister, Sandra Kaye, was found brutalized and naked on a frozen February floodway 22 years ago. Her murderer remains at large, the crime unsolved.

Do you know any women who live in the posh neighbourhood of Forest Hills in Toronto or maybe the trendy Shaughnessy enclave in Vancouver? What if well over 1,200 of these women who lived in these predominantly white neighbourhoods were murdered, violated or disappeared? What if many of these killings and disappearances were never solved?

The politicians and police would be all over this like white on rice.

In meticulously detailed reports, the National and Ontario Native Women's Associations and the RCMP have collected data on cases of over 1,200 aboriginal women who have been murdered or disappeared. Far too many of these violent crimes are cold cases, and the information cited in these reports makes a Stephen King horror novel read like a Pollyanna picnic. The majority of these murdered and disappeared aboriginal women are mothers who have left behind now-motherless children. The generational impact of these violent crimes will be abundant and apparent.

So in light of the cries and pleas of loved ones left behind, the demands of numerous Canadian leaders and organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations, Canadian premiers, the Aboriginal Women's Action Network, Amnesty International and numerous others including the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, why is so little being done to address these unsolved cases? They have been unanimous in calling upon the Government of Canada to initiate a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. As is his want, Stephen Harper who, let's face it, is the Government of Canada, has ignored these pleas on this national disgrace.

So why is Stephen Harper stuck on "no"? Is it because he may be correct in assuming we are all stuck in the same negative rut?

The reasons are deeply rooted in the rot of stereotypes and systemic racism too deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of our culture. The dictionary defines "stereotype" as a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. "Missing or murdered aboriginal women? Well, what do you expect -- they likely spend all or much of their hand-to-mouth lives on Seedy Street!" The trouble with such a wildly distorted stereotype is it is like a parasite that bores down deeply into our collective thinking and infects our perspective dominating our uninformed opinions of others and their problems. It then mutates into something far more dangerous and enabling.

Human rights commissions define systemic racism and the resulting discrimination as "patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of the structures of an organization and which create or perpetuate disadvantage for racialized persons."

These corrosive and toxic attitudes and benign policies are at the heart of why we have come to know so little about these women and their suffering. That so little has been done to solve these horrendous crimes or to begin to prevent their recurrence goes far beyond disinterested police work or distracted media.

We now know the year-long federal parliamentary committee created to investigate this appalling, ongoing tragedy originally recommended a national inquiry. Stephen Harper instructed his obedient backbenchers, who form a majority on that committee, to remove that recommendation. "Let's not have this disgrace brewing on the front burners as we trundle into the next election," he may just as well have said.

As Harper and his estranged government continue to occupy the penthouse suites, we, as Canadians, need to shine some very bright lights into the cellars and basements under our foundations as a country, or are we too afraid of what we will find lurking in the darkness?


Beverly Anne Sabourin from Pic Mobert First Nation recently retired as the vice-provost of aboriginal initiatives at Lakehead University and her husband, Peter Globensky, is a former senior policy adviser on aboriginal affairs in the Prime Minister's Office and recently retired as CEO of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. They live on the north shores of Lake Superior.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2014 A13

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