Writing in the National Post, Macdonald-Laurier Institute Senior Fellow Ken Coates writes Ken Coatsthat combating violence against Aboriginal women requires a more robust response than simply calling a national inquiry.

“If a single program, law, regulation or policy would solve this complex problem, it would have been enacted by now”, writes Coates. “Deeply seated issues take decades to undo”.

By Ken Coates, Feb. 16, 2015

For every story like that of Tina Fontaine, the murdered Aboriginal teenager from Winnipeg whose case made the national news last summer, there are dozens more like it across the country that go largely unnoticed. In Aboriginal communities and urban centres alike, Indigenous women live with constant danger. The demand from Aboriginal peoples and many other Canadians for a national inquiry into missing and murdered women springs from this painful reality.

A recent conversation I had with a prominent Aboriginal woman leader in Saskatchewan made this clear. While she wasn’t sure about the need for an inquiry, she knew her community needed something. Violence against women was widespread and getting worse. The women were vulnerable and violence was growing, not declining. The police had too few officers and too many cases. Social and mental services could not match demand.

Women fled for the safety of nearby cities only to discover that their vulnerability came with them. She had no answers. She wanted to know that Canadians and their governments shared her frustrations and her worries about her community. Why, she wondered, did the country do so little when the problems were so obvious?

Aboriginal women, including those asking for an inquiry, know this issue all too well.  They do not actually need an investigation to reveal the bitter truths about sexual violence, domestic abuse, or the racially driven violence directed at Indigenous women in cities. They know that most of the violence is Native to Native, and they suffer along with the men in their communities. What they do not understand is the refusal of general public and governments to declare the violence, murders and disappearances to be a national emergency.

Launching an official inquiry is no assurance of a positive and constructive outcome. As Aboriginal peoples discovered, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the mid 1990s did not result in dramatic changes in public policy. Did the outcomes of the Gomery Commission into the Sponsorship Scandal justify the price tag in the tens of millions?

Those with technical mandates – the Royal Commission on the Canadian blood system or the Dubin Inquiry into the use of performance enhancing drugs are good examples – can direct policy-makers to more constructive approaches. In general, however, inquiries take a long time, cost a lot of money, and result in fewer improvements than desired. And they can delay political and administrative action.

If a single program, law, regulation or policy would solve this complex problem, it would have been enacted by now. Deeply seated issues take decades to undo. The very least all Canadians can do is to ensure that Aboriginal women, victims or potential victims of violence and abuse, know that there is now a collective commitment to addressing both the immediate and the underlying issues.

There is much that can be done. Government leaders – federal, provincial, territorial and Aboriginal – should declare their commitment to giving higher priority to missing and murdered Aboriginal women, to making improvements in social services for Aboriginal families at risk, and to working with Aboriginal governments to identify special actions of high potential. Winnipeg, for example, has conceded that the police have to give more attention to their approach to missing Indigenous women.

First Nations can likewise hold community meetings to determine women’s sense of safety and vulnerability. Speaking about the issue out loud is a crucial first step. Urban service organizations can do a collective audit of need, services provided and outcomes. In some communities, anti-gang measures are urgently required. In others, actions to control drinking and domestic violence are the highest priority.

There are no global solutions. Much of this is at the community level. Inside Aboriginal homes, where family lives have been devastated by decades of bad public policy, there are too many ill-treated children, over-crowded rooms, poor nutrition and signs of the ravages of serial unemployment and diminished cultural values.

Inquiry or not, Canada will not come out of this necessary national reconciliation unscathed. We must look hard at the long-term effects of racism, colonialism, residential schools, the Indian Act and government paternalism. Male power in Aboriginal communities will come under scrutiny, adding to local tensions.

As the country opens it eyes, it will no longer wonder why there is so much violence against women. One hopes that Canadians will wonder instead why they have not – as individuals, churches, community groups, governments, charities and others – done more. This pattern of pain and suffering diminishes each and every Canadian.

Aboriginal women in this country deserve far more than an inquiry. They deserve the right to live safely, in their homes, communities and cities, with dignity and respect from all. This is what they have deserved for generations. Surely this rich, compassionate and justice-seeking country can give it to them now.

Ken S. Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan, and a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (macdonaldlaurier.ca).

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