Putting spotlight on all Canada’s vulnerable

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It's a pretty good bet that when he took the podium at Yukon College in Whitehorse last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had no intention of sparking a national debate on the role of the federal government in the lives of the most vulnerable Canadians.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/09/2014 (2892 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s a pretty good bet that when he took the podium at Yukon College in Whitehorse last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had no intention of sparking a national debate on the role of the federal government in the lives of the most vulnerable Canadians.

And yet, intended or not, that’s exactly what Harper has done.

The nation is now intensely focused on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women that seems destined to broaden into an examination of the welfare of all Canadians.

We are still no closer to dealing with the matters that made these women so vulnerable in the first place

Many factors have gone into raising this issue, including the killing of Manitoba teenager Tina Fontaine. However, it was Harper in August, talking about the Fontaine death, who insisted this was about crime, and not a “sociological phenomenon.”

That comment, widely condemned as naive and dismissive, has become a catalyst for a renewed national interest in taking action to materially improve the life of aboriginal people.

What exactly was Harper thinking when he uttered those words? A detailed examination of the evolution of this issue holds some clues.

Years ago, when it first began to capture headlines, concern centred on the high number of unsolved cases involving missing and murdered aboriginal women. There was irrefutable evidence police did not investigate these cases as robustly as they did crimes against non-aboriginals. Even in cases where there was evidence of a serial killer at work, police were reluctant to connect those dots. Race, many a cop would tell us, was not an issue.

Of course, much of that thinking has disappeared, and police are responding to this as a national issue.

From the horrors of the Robert Pickton case in Vancouver, to the establishment of specific police task forces in several provinces, there is a clear consensus now that men were allowed to prey on these vulnerable women in part because they knew there was so little threat of being caught.

However, even though we are doing a better job of solving these crimes, we are still no closer to dealing with the matters that made these women so vulnerable in the first place. That would require a sociological analysis. In clumsily trying to prevent that from happening, Harper galvanized a national debate and sparked broad public engagement.

In a rare act of unity, Canada’s premiers called for a national roundtable to deal with missing and murdered aboriginal women. Former prime ministers Joe Clark and Paul Martin, along with aboriginal leaders such as Ovide Mercredi, added their gravitas with an idea to create a new national body to deal with the plight of aboriginal people.

All that debate and engagement has now ensured this will be a major election issue, something that will resonate with aboriginal and non-aboriginal voters alike. That realization has produced some movement from the Tories — including some passive support for a roundtable — but a national inquiry continues to be a non-starter.

Why so much resistance to a broader, sociological analysis? A national inquiry of that kind would pose awkward questions and reveal uncomfortable realities about the diminishing role of the federal government in the lives of all Canadians.

A national inquiry would delve into questions such as familial dysfunction, child welfare, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, economic disparity and the shortcomings of the education and health-care systems. An examination of that scope would touch on issues that affect both aboriginal and non-aboriginal citizens.

An inquiry would no doubt expose growing income inequality and the ever-diminishing federal contribution to education, social programs and health care. And how that shrinking support tends to disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable in our society.

A commission of inquiry would be, to put it mildly, a potent and biting indictment of the culture of successive federal governments that have, for decades, placed the health and welfare of the neediest Canadians well below other, less profound policy goals.

If an inquiry is called and Canada can somehow use that to formulate real solutions to some of these chronic problems — a solution that will require us to rethink the role of government, the burden of taxation and our responsibility to the most vulnerable citizens — then we will be able to point to Harper’s fateful comment as the starting point.

In that scenario, we find a profound irony.

Stephen Harper had no intention of sparking a national debate or motivating a nation to take a new critical look at the role of the federal government in the lives of all Canadians.

But with one simple phrase, that’s essentially what he has done.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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