Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

To stem violence, save the child

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Canada's premiers have an opportunity at their meeting today in Charlottetown to call the prime minister on the carpet for the risks faced by aboriginal girls and women in this country. They must demand Ottawa join them in devising an appropriate response to the problem, long overdue.

The murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg is a crime. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was right on that. But Mr. Harper was embarrassingly wrong in his assertion Tina Fontaine's slaying was not part of a sociological phenomenon. Mr. Harper's desire to shift the focus to a criminological response is wrong. It won't work.

Tina Fontaine's killer must be caught and prosecuted. But courts and penitentiaries can't halt the violence plaguing aboriginal people -- men, women, children.

Aboriginal people are disproportionately victims and offenders. The daily assaults and the extraordinary, unspeakable acts of physical and sexual violence wreaked upon them are the end result of historical attacks against their culture, families and communities. This country has wielded social, political and economic policies like sledgehammers against its First Nation, Métis and Inuit people.

Made victims of their own government, they victimize their own.

Mr. Harper knows this. Yet he chose to disconnect Tina Fontaine's grisly death from the crippling dysfunction in aboriginal communities, bred by destructive policies and routine racism.

The premiers and leaders of the territories know this. In Charlottetown, they will discuss again the need for a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women, and the conditions that predispose them to risk. They should not, however, exploit the cause for a renewed demand for more money from the feds.

Many believe a national inquiry will give a forum for the stories that need to be told in a national awakening. But Canada could fill a library with the reports from inquiries, commissions and studies describing the factors that make First Nations people vulnerable to violence.

These problems are deep-seated, but they are not intractable. The answers, or at least steps towards solutions, have been laid out by those many commissions, inquiries and researchers. Aboriginal communities must take control of the education and corrections systems along with social services, including child welfare.

Ottawa's role is to transfer sufficient funding so band governments can invest in resources to meet the challenge. Provincial governments must ensure services off-reserve are also well-funded.

The devolution of child-welfare services to aboriginal agencies in Manitoba is a case study of what can happen when staff are ill-equipped to work on impoverished reserves with few social supports.

But there are models that are working. There are systems of healing that address endemic neglect and the physical and sexual abuse on reserves that lead to multi-generational poverty, mental illness, crime, poor health and early death.

Ottawa's own studies have confirmed the success, in Manitoba, of Hollow Water's Holistic Circle Healing Centre. The community's remarkable restorative justice system, which protects victims and addresses offenders, deserves to be backed up by increased, long-term funding. Nisichawayasihk's family services provide a community response when parents fail -- a guardian moves in with the children while the parent leaves to get help. The approach avoids unnecessary trauma to children. The incidence of FAS in the community has dropped.

Sociology 101: Early abuse and neglect damage children and create broken adults, who in turn can wreak havoc upon others, often their loved ones. The premiers cannot let Mr. Harper respond to the scourge of violence by, and against, aboriginal people with funding for more cops and jails. Canada must start on the necessary, difficult reparations required to restore aboriginal communities to health. The first step is to let the communities to design their own solutions.

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 August 27, 2014 A8

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