The recent tragic murder of 15 year old Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg reminds us yet again of the startling statistic regarding the epidemic of aboriginal women who go missing or turn up dead in this country. There is a growing consensus among aboriginal groups, civil society, the political parties in Ottawa and the provinces, even the RCMP, that the federal government must create a public inquiry as soon as possible in order to get to the bottom of over 1,000 documented unsolved murders and disappearances. But, once again we have a Prime Minister whose bizarre prejudice against the scientific field of sociology stands in the way of providing much needed relief to the long suffering families of the victims (what, no Canadian Bill of Rights for victims of these crimes?) and to aboriginal Canadian communities.
First, a quick civics class: what exactly does setting up a parliamentary inquiry entail? By virtue of section 18 of the Constitution Act 1867, Parliament has the ability to institute its own inquiries, to compel witnesses to testify and to require the submission of documents. This power is exercized primarily by Parliamentary committees (in this case, most likely falling to the aboriginal affairs committee) in the course of which, they may ask public officials, private individuals or representative groups, non-profit organizations, corporations and lobbies, to appear before the committee in order to testify or present evidence. This power is also shared by the provincial legislatures and their committees by virtue of their statutes. Premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario has already stated that she might move forward with an inquiry, with or without the support of the federal government.
The rub, of course, is that the federal Conservatives control the committees on account of them holding the majority of the seats on all of them. This means they will deep-six any attempt by the opposition to create an inquiry, which the government and in particular Harper, forcefully refuse. Tom Mulcair has already taken the admirable step of announcing that he would hold an inquiry within his first hundred days of taking office
The Liberal have of course expressed their outrage at the government’ intransigience. Though it should be remembered that in 1996-97, the Liberal government under Jean Chretien basically ignored the report issued by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs, in the process costing the taxpayer an astounding $50 million and mothballing 4,000 pages of recommendations, including measures aimed to improve the safety of aboriginal women.
Finally, we have the usual conservative punditry aghast at the idea of an inquiry for a wide variety of reasons. Andrew Coyne being on the thoughtful, however wrongheaded, side of the debate with his piece last week in the Vancouver Sun. To be fair, he is not defending the Prime Minister’s attitude, admitting that Harper’s response to the crisis (and yes it qualifies as a crisis) has been appalling calling it “cartoonishly simplistic!”
On the more extreme side, we find the op-ed written by right-wing libertarian, and former Harper adviser and strategist, Tom Flanagan in which the author dismisses the need for an inquiry for the obscene reason that such an action is yet another attempt by First Nations to milk the system for more money!!! Then in a convoluted logic that is a major stretch even for an ivory-tower academic like Flanagan, he manages to tie the disproportionately high murder rate among aboriginal women to a Supreme Court decision, that he claims has contributed to the problem (despite not providing a shred of evidence to support this theory) by letting aboriginal offenders off the hook too easily.
None of this debate will bring back Tina Fontaine. Nor for that matter will a Public Inquiry, bring back the thousands of other aboriginal women and children who are lost, missing and murdered. But as with the Commission that investigated the grievances of aboriginal Canadians with respect to the now well-documented horrors of Canada’s Residential Schools, sunlight is often the best disinfectant when it comes to widespread crimes that have complex interrelated social, economic, cultural and historical causes. A public inquiry would provide exactly that.
Photo from Amnesty International Canada.
Other articles by David DesBaillets
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