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Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson, from northern Manitoba, has called for the resignation of the inquiry’s chief commissioner, British Columbia Judge Marion Buller. At least four staff members have left, and now one of the commissioners has resigned. Despite millions of dollars already spent, the inquiry can’t seem to get going, and – in a bizarre twist – is asking for more money from the federal government.
What’s going on?
There’s no way of knowing, of course, because it’s an internal squabble among the aboriginal leadership elite. But, based on my admittedly limited knowledge, I’m willing to speculate.
The inquiry has a mandate to look into the deaths of aboriginal women who have gone missing. These cases include women who were brutally murdered along the Highway of Tears and the ghastly murders by killers like Robert Pickton. These cases are tragedies and the families deserve answers. The inquiry is charged with finding answers.
So far, so good – there could be no disagreement about that.
But the inquiry is also charged with examining the much bigger subject of violence to aboriginal women. I’m guessing this is where the conflict lies. One faction wants to focus on the missing women only, and the other faction insists on digging into the larger and more difficult subject of aboriginal women as victims of violence.
How big is that problem?
It’s simply enormous. Aboriginal girls are far more likely to be raped by community or family members than their non-aboriginal counterparts. An aboriginal woman is something like 50 times more likely to be beaten or murdered than a non-aboriginal woman. It can be said, without exaggeration, that, in Canada, aboriginal women have lives as fraught with danger as women in the most violent countries on the planet.
And that’s where the missing women come from. Sexually abused, denied their childhoods as little girls, then beaten and ground down as women, they flee from violent and alcoholic men, and end up on the Highway of Tears. The ones left behind come to know their own grim version of that highway.
So the responsible faction of the inquiry is determined to shine a spotlight on this massive problem. But why would the other faction not want this done?
The answer is as simple as it is disturbing.
While the bad guys in the cases of the missing women are unknown, or ghouls like Pickton, the bad guys in the overwhelming percentage of cases are practically always their partners or family members. That is, they are aboriginal men. A comprehensive examination of violence to aboriginal women will need to focus directly on the behaviour of these men. They have physically and sexually assaulted the women, and they have made the lives of so many women hell on earth.
This doesn’t fit into the blame agenda that the faction representing what I call ‘the victim industry’ wants to see unfold. They want to blame someone else for the problem – the police, the government – but not aboriginal men. They even have a name for it: institutional racism.
But these abusive men are responsible for much of the problem – not the police or the government. As a sitting judge, I saw men brought to court daily to answer charges of physically and sexually abusing girls and women. They typically excused their behaviour with a pathetic combination of I was drinking, it was colonialism, residential school, the ’60s scoop, or any other handy excuse they thought might be swallowed by a gullible judge.
But I expected these men to say those things. They were trying to get a light sentence. What I found more disturbing was that so often community members, including older women, were quite willing to accept those lame excuses. Frightened, abused women would be urged to go back to smirking, abusive men. They would usually comply because they had nowhere else to go. Or an older grandfatherly-type who had serially sexually abused little girls or boys who were related to him would be healed and returned to the community to abuse again. And the cycle continued. And it continues today.
In what should come as a shock to Canadians, this excusing of abusive men’s behaviour reaches the highest levels. I was appalled to hear the minister of Aboriginal Affairs explain that aboriginal men abused because of colonialism. I’m sure this kind of excuse-making is welcomed by abusers – but I’m also sure it sent shivers down the spines of those women who will be their next victims.
The picture is certainly not so grim in a growing number of progressive communities because they’ve taken ownership of the problem and are dealing with it. But, sadly, there remain far too many aboriginal communities where the men insist on locking themselves and their families in a deadly prison of dependence, alcohol, abuse and violence. And blaming everyone except themselves.
If I’m right that the chief commissioner is determined to have this inquiry accomplish more than extract as much money as possible from the government in time for the next victim industry show trial, then I urge her to stick to her guns. But the odds are not stacked in her favour.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow at the think-tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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