Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Murder and native women

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The RCMP have precisely defined the extent of extreme violence against aboriginal women, and nowhere is the problem more stark as in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In the two provinces, aboriginal women made up 49 and 55 per cent, respectively, of female murder victims between 1980 and 2012, wildly out of proportion to their population.

While illustrating the complex and broad challenge before all elements of society, the national police force's review of the cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women goes some way to assuage concerns about the response of law enforcement agencies to such cases. The review, which included RCMP files and those in 300 municipal police forces, found the rate of solved homicides -- 88 per cent -- and the length of time (averaging 224 days) it took to resolve the cases of aboriginal women is roughly equal to those for non-aboriginal victims.

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The police have come under repeated accusation from families and advocacy groups that when aboriginal women and girls go missing or are killed, police dismiss the concerns or drag their heels in response. While the data tabulation did not precisely answer those allegations, it shows that there is no gross or glaring inconsistency in how police generally handle investigations when aboriginal women are murdered.

The seven-month review, led by the RCMP, is a huge step forward in defining the scope of the problem. Aboriginal women make up only slightly more than four per cent of the female Canadian population, yet tally 16 per cent of all female homicides.

In Manitoba, where aboriginals comprise almost 17 per cent of the population, half of female homicides are aboriginal women and girls. That number jumps to 55 per cent in Saskatchewan.

The World Health Organization says the level of violence against women around the globe pose a health issue of epidemic proportions. The RCMP's data make clear that the scope of lethal violence against aboriginal women in this wealthy, modernized nation is a plague, and Manitoba and the rest of the West are at its epicentre.

The RCMP's project involved gathering statistics but also reading through the individual files. Dissection of the facts of the cases gleaned useful insight to the factors and characteristics of the crimes, assailants and victims.

First, the murdered women were most likely to be attacked in a home, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike. Few of them were sex-trade workers. Aboriginal women had a higher rate of being killed by an acquaintance; non-aboriginal victims were killed more often by a spouse.

The offenders were almost all male and young, but those who killed aboriginal women were more likely to have a record of crime, especially for violence crime.

Further, both the aboriginal victims and the men who killed them were much more likely to have used drugs or consumed alcohol prior to the incident, police found. And like the men who killed them, the aboriginal women had higher rates of unemployment and were more likely to have criminal records.

The report, however, has comparatively little about the lives of women who were reported missing, details that ought to be filled in, especially given the grievance of those aboriginal families who say their calls for help do not get the police attention they deserve.

This report was too long in coming. Further, there was no dissection of the statistics from municipalities -- the Winnipeg Police Service, and its western counterparts, must now copy the work of the national force to do similar analysis of murdered and missing cases in their jurisdictions to pinpoint local factors at work.

The data highlight the problem, but the details behind the crimes only scratch at the work in front of the country required to unravel the knot of entrenched social and economic malaise putting women in harm's way. Native organizations, municipal police chiefs and all levels of governments must work together. They have been given a rough blueprint for action. Get started.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 A16

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