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Time for a talk

Inquiry into murdered aboriginal women could start a useful discussion

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Who would oppose an inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women? I mean, besides Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cronies. Only awful people, right?

The reality is much more complicated.

Many indigenous people oppose an inquiry for some valid reasons, mostly centering on Canada's track record of pouring millions of dollars into inquiries that result in a whack of fantastic recommendations that are never implemented. Or worse, setting up an inquiry that is a tragic farce and pretending the issue was dealt with, case closed.

Many people feel the root causes of so many cases of murdered and missing indigenous women (MMIW) are fairly well known already. The problem is deeply systemic, rooted in a fundamental devaluing of indigenous lives, and of indigenous women in particular. Can an inquiry, rooted in this system, see its own structures as a major factor in these deaths and disappearances? Even if it could, would an inquiry be able to actually make changes to that system?

I disagree with none of these points. I fully agree with those who worry that the response to MMIW is to reach for wider powers for police, more control over First Nations lives, more blame for victims and families and communities without building structures of accountability within government-mandated services that fail our people utterly. I do not for a moment believe that an inquiry is capable of doing away with any of these things. A national inquiry will not fix things.

So why then am I not in opposition to a national inquiry, despite the fact I clearly do not support one?

A national inquiry has the potential to foster a national discussion. I say discussion rather than narrative, because the story is not over. It continues to unfold around us, laying our hearts to waste one grisly discovery after another.

Some people ask why we need an inquiry to have this national discussion. I ask the same question. Indigenous communities do not need an inquiry to have this discussion; it has been ongoing for decades.

But the wider Canadian public has only recently begun to hear about MMIW as an issue. It seems to me there is such a deep disconnect between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples that official Canadian proceedings are one way of bridging the gap. A gap that itself is indicative of the systemic roots of violence against indigenous land and bodies.

I don't care about money. The Canadian government loses billions of dollars and doesn't bother to account for it, so the millions an inquiry would likely cost are a drop in the bucket. Canada is so bereft of fundamental justice for indigenous peoples, and the resulting cost in human lives is so high, no amount of whining about the price tag will sway me.

I don't for a second believe the money a national inquiry would cost would somehow be funneled into useful projects to protect indigenous women and children if only we chose that instead. That isn't even on the table, no matter how much we know it should be.

Although I do not believe a national inquiry will stop this violence, I do respect the wishes of many of the family members who need this discussion to happen, for these stories to be told in order to help them heal. If that were all an inquiry could possibly accomplish, just a sliver of closure, of healing, for even one grieving family member, I would still say "let's do it."

An inquiry has the potential to examine the structures of violence and the way they intersect. It has the potential to get the general Canadian public talking about more than speculations as to choices made by individual victims. Let's look into intergenerational trauma from Indian residential schools. Let's look into the impact of astronomic suicide rates in our communities, the violence of poverty, the way child-welfare services are implicated. Let's look at how police investigate (or fail to) these crimes.

Does it matter that these questions have been asked before? Does it matter that we have some of the answers already? Couldn't we bring together all the studies that have already been done, and cobble together a pretty good 'big picture'?

That's what indigenous-led organizations are already doing. But I do not oppose there being yet another venue for discussion. Let there be a flood of studies, and databases, and memorial projects and marches. Let the hue and cry grow so loud and inescapable that for one goddamn moment this country will be forced to pay attention.

Despite all of the flaws with a possible national inquiry, I see very little use in opposing it. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples submitted 444 recommendations, the bulk of which was never implemented. Yet the report has had a tremendous influence on court cases, on policy development, on research, on people just trying to learn more of the history of this country. I have a love/hate relationship with the RCAP but I refer to it often, and I am grateful for its existence.

What we cannot allow is for a national inquiry to be the final or only response to violence against indigenous women. I think whether you oppose or support such an inquiry, this much is clear.


Chelsea Vowel is Métis from the Plains Cree-speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alta. She lives in Montreal and blogs under the name Âpihtawikosisân.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 A17

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