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  July 26, 2015

UN Reports Blasts Canada's Human Rights Record on Violence Against Indigenous Women

Aboriginal Legal Service of Toronto's Christa Big Canoe explains why government policies are leaving indigenous women four times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous women - and what can be done about it
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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Thursday, Canada's reputation took a blow when its human rights record came under review by the United Nations Human Rights committee for the first time in about a decade. One of the main focuses was the violence against women. In particular, indigenous women. According to a 2014 report released by Canada's national police force, RCMP, 1,200 Aboriginal women have been murdered since the 1980s, and they are four times more likely to be killed than non-indigenous women.

Now joining us to understand the significance of this report is Christa Big Canoe. She's the legal advocacy director of the Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto. Thank you for joining us, Christa.


DESVARIEUX: So Christa, for those hearing those statistics for the first time it may be quite shocking. And we should note that the number may be much higher because of gaps in reporting. But Christa, you say there's a connection to the exploitation and attack of these women and government policies. Can you speak to which specific government policies have contributed to making these women vulnerable?

BIG CANOE: Absolutely. It's a long history in Canada of colonialism, so it's not as simple as just contemporary ones. But I will focus on some of the more immediate ones. Currently, and what's getting a lot of national attention and international attention, is the Canadian government's refusal to call a national inquiry and to look at these incidences of violence as sort of singular crime as opposed to a phenomenon that's occurring in Canada where we see 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women.

And so one of the biggest things is that there's a refusal to approach, or to sort of take an approach that looks more holistically and on a national scale at what police investigation services are doing, what programs could be put into place, and what a real action plan that dedicates and commits change would assist, as opposed to looking at every individual incident as simply a matter of crime.

DESVARIEUX: So you mentioned the police investigation services. What's the issue there, what are they not doing?

BIG CANOE: Well--and it's really hard when from an outside perspective or if you haven't been advocating in this field for a number of years to kind of get your head around it. But quite frankly, from a position of advocacy what we've seen is a number of years where there wasn't necessarily a lot of attention paid to patterns, or what was happening. The worst-case scenario, the advocates argue that the police did very little, for example, when a woman's family would report a woman missing, often there wasn't an immediate response and there wasn't good communications.

One of the--in Canada there was a survey done amongst 112 of the families who have missing or murdered women. And the response was most of them were not satisfied with police response or police investigations.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Now, let's get into some of the specifics of the UN report. I know you live and breathe this stuff, so there probably wasn't much that stood out to you. But for folks who are just getting to know this story now, what should be something that they should pay attention to?

BIG CANOE: Well, I think it's very positive that the committee actually has taken the time to articulate this is one of their concerns when looking at Canada's human rights record. Very often Canada is viewed as this champion of human rights, and I think it surprises other countries and even people from Canada when a report comes out like this, and it sometimes is shocking or alarming when you hear numbers like 1,200 missing and murdered women.

But what's important, particularly, about the report is that they do actually thread through some connections. Not just on this issue, but how they tie to some of the other human right concerns. And so internationally, Canada has been sort of called out on their inability to address this issue by organizations such as Amnesty International, nationally by Legal Strategy Coalition.

And so this is not news, it's just that it's only recently getting coverage and media coverage or awareness. Anywhere else if you had this many missing or murdered individuals in a free and democratic society, I think people would be quite surprised and would react different than what we've seen here in Canada.

DESVARIEUX: Can you give us some examples as how they're connecting these dots?

BIG CANOE: Certainly. Well, for example, there's been a large number of reports or research done, actually. And so our prime minister has said that this is not an issue that's high on his radar. So he's spent a lot of rhetoric talking about how this is not really an issue of national importance, which obviously is contrary to the position advocates take, seeing as Canada and First Nations and indigenous people were the first people here in the country, and historically and systemically have been harmed in a lot of ways. This is sort of like a contemporary or modern version that just demonstrates some of the struggles of overcoming the law and policy it has created, and the inability to get a government to react in a positive way.

And so having an international body call that out is important, particularly if it raises the profile even more of what's happening here in Canada.

DESVARIEUX: But with this reality, what's been the response of the community? I mean, they've lived this. Have they organized themselves to police themselves, if they can't depend on the Canadian government?

BIG CANOE: Well--and I wish it was that simple. Canada, much like the United States, is very large geographically. And so we're talking about vast spread across the country with various resources.

When you're looking into a lot of First Nations communities across the country, which we have over 600, a lot of them are resource-stripped, a lot of them lack--the root causes behind the violence is well known, and it stems from poverty, lack of education, a lack of resources. A lot of the, what in the States are called reservations and here in Canada are called reserves are very small, and they don't have a lot of opportunity to them. So it's really to say how come people aren't policing themselves.

Now, in urban settings in the larger cities, it's also a problem. And so Aboriginal community as well as non-Aboriginal communities supporting Aboriginal community has taken a number of steps and actions such as the Legal Strategy Coalition here in Canada, which has become very vocal and released a lot of reports, research, around the issue so we can raise the education to the public.

When you have a government who uses rhetoric to set an agenda that doesn't include paying attention to this issue, it's really important to how people understand the issue. And so there is a lot of grassroots movement as well as high-profile movements nationally talking about what can we do. We currently in Canada have a government that refuses to listen to the importance of indigenous lives and deaths.

DESVARIEUX: So Christa just really quickly, what can we do? What kind of safeguards need to be introduced?

BIG CANOE: There's a number of safeguards that need to be introduced. In Canada there's been over 700 recommendations made in reports. These are the type of things and actions that could already be put in plan, and the federal government is refusing to implement a number of them. There are provinces that are starting to implement some of the recommendations and plans such as increasing access to education, ensuring that there is better opportunity, as well as information and more broad information awareness, and knowledge is power.

And so it's important that that continues not just for indigenous people but for all Canadians so that we can work collectively and collaboratively to solve some of these problems.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Christa Big Canoe, thank you so much for joining us.

BIG CANOE: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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