By Lloyd Dolha
Following seven long months of anticipation, the federal government revealed plans for $10 million in funding to address the disturbingly high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose spoke at the Vancouver Police headquarters in October, explaining the funding will provide new tools for law enforcement, improve the justice system for Aboriginal women, and provide better victim’s services for families. “Aboriginal women, including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis and non-status Indians, are 3 ½ times more likely to experience violent victimization than non-aboriginal women. They’re three times more likely to be the victims of spousal abuse than non-aboriginal women and are significantly over-represented as victims of homicides,” said Minister Ambrose.
The two-year funding will support initiatives to improve community safety on reserves and establish a National Police Service Centre for Missing Persons. The new centre would help improve coordination between police forces across the nation and offer specialized support in missing persons investigations. The Canadian Police Centre database will collect additional case information through a “tip” website for missing persons. Amendments to the Criminal Code will also streamline the ability to obtain a warrant in missing persons cases where wiretaps are required. The new measures will help improve the cultural relevance of victim’s services, enhance community safety plans, and develop awareness materials as well as school and community-based projects geared toward young Aboriginal women and girls.
Since 2005, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has been using the Sisters in Spirit campaign to raise awareness and document evidence relating to violence against aboriginal women (especially violence leading to disappearance or death). To date, Sisters in Spirit has identified more than 580 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Minister Ambrose acknowledged that the NWAC’s April 2010 report served as a catalyst for the new funding initiative.
Outspoken Aboriginal activist Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2000, is pleased about the funding, but agrees that more should be done to improve the social, health, and economic status of Aboriginal women so they are not forced to live on the fringes of society where they are exposed to violence and murderous predators like Robert “Willie” Picton. “Let’s not forget that some of the missing and murdered women, like my sister Dawn, suffered from mental illness and depended on methadone to combat an addiction to street drugs,” said Crey.
Crey says he’s grateful to NWAC for standing by the victims’ families and thankful for people like Gladys Radek who began the Walk 4 Justice. Radek lost a niece, Tamara Chapman (22), who was hitchhiking out of Prince Rupert on the Highway of Tears in September 2005. Radek began her nationwide campaign on National Aboriginal Day 2008, organizing a walk from Vancouver to Ottawa to draw attention to the issue. The event attracted thousands of supporters. “Together, these groups put the issue of missing and murdered women front and center on Canada’s human rights agenda,” said Crey.
Others were less impressed with the $10 million funding announcement. New Democrat MP Irene Mathyssen (London-Fanshawe) pointed out that despite the announcement, none of that money would go to help the Sisters in Spirit campaign. She said the Conservative government is shunning the primary advocate for the victims and putting key information at risk. The five-year funding for Sisters in Spirit expired in March. “We were hopeful that some of the government’s $10 million announcement would go to Sisters in Spirit to help maintain its database of missing and murdered Aboriginal women,” she said. “The important research they have done may now be lost. The minister needs to explain how this data will be protected.”
MP Anita Neville, Liberal Critic for the Status of Women, demanded the immediate restoration of funding for the Sisters in Spirit research project. The Winnipeg South Centre MP called the current funding an inadequate half-measure that “completely sidesteps the fundamental question: why is the rate of missing and murdered First Nations women and girls so high?” Neville points out that the Liberals have demanded and independant public investigation into the issue since May 2009 and accuses the ruling Conservatives of “smothering the valuable work being done by the group intially responsible for bringing attention to this critical issue.” She says, “To really take concrete action on this issue, you need ongoing and updated evidence, which is what the Sisters in Spirit database was all about.” Neville called again for a full public inquiry to investigate “the response of the justice system to these cases, as well as the root causes of violence against Aboriginal women… and why so many cases remain unsolved.”
NWAC had originally sent out a press release stating their support for the announcement of funding from the Department of Justice; however, upon closer inspection, NWAC and Sisters in Spirit have serious concerns about how the money is allocated. They note that details in the announcement were not specific to Aboriginal women, and that it did not include measures to address serious crimes like murder (instead treating violence as a whole). They say the announcement did not address jurisdictional issues of the RCMP and that it reinvents and conducts work already done by Sisters in Spirit. They expressed their dissappointment with the exclusion of Sisters in Spirit in ongoing development of public policy in the matter.
Based on the wording of the 2010 federal budget and the Throne Speech praising Sisters in Spirit, NWAC believed they would be invited to join a discussion with the Department of Justice about allocation of funds and receive additional funding, which did not happen.
The announcement delivered by Status of Women Minister Ambrose was in fact funding supplied by the Department of Justice. When funding for Sisters in Spirit ran out in March 2010, NWAC secured six months of bridge funding of $500,000 from the Ministry of the Status of Women to keep the project going. That funding lasted through October, and a second project called “Sisters in Spirit, Evidence to Action.” In her introductory remarks, Ambrose acknowledged NWAC, Sisters in Spirit, and the “Evidence to Action” project to which NWAC must now apply for continued funding on the issue. Funding for Evidence to Action, from the Status of Women ministry, prevents NWAC from furthering their research and policy development work. Ministry officials have asked that funding proposals from NWAC not include the name Sisters in Spirit or that any funds they receive be dedicated to research for their database of missing and murdered women. Despite the outrage of the MPs and confusion that followed, NWAC clarified their position in an open letter sent to families of the missing and murdered women and girls. “These are two seperate issues and each will be dealt with… We are moving forward to maintain our current funding, secure new funding, and continue our work with you,” stated the letter.
Since the announcement, The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) has written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging him to reconsider his government’s decision to disallow funding to the NWAC for projects using the name Sisters in Spirit or to upkeep its database of nearly 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women. “The alarming rates of violence against Aboriginal women and girls are of great concern to NUPGE,” stated NUPGE’s president James Clancy. “According to the 2004 General Social Survey, Aboriginal women 15 years and older are almost three times more likely to be killed by a stranger than non-Aboriginal women.” Clancy stated that it “would seem punitive to make funding for NWAC’s continuing work on this critical issue contingent on a name and the abandoning of their database which has made huge strides in bringing to light this national tragedy.” He stressed, “On behalf of the national union’s 340,000 members, many of whom are of Aboriginal decent, I urge you to not desert the families of the 582 missing and mudered Aboriginal women!”
NWAC also expressed concern that the federal government is curbing the success of the Sisters in Spirit intiative. “This change has negatively affected the activities that NWAC can undertake and will hamper our ability to maintain focus on resolving the epidemic of violence that threatens Aboriginal women and girls across the country,” stated the release. They point out that the Sisters in Spirit project has become a global movement internationally recogized in Europe, Latin America, Australia, and North America. The release further stated that NWAC looks forward to collaboration with the government on projects that will continue the work begun almost six years ago and urged that “the staggeringly high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls remains a national priority that needs to be addressed immediately.”