(Toronto) – The visit to Canada on the week of August 5, 2013, by representatives of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a major step toward accountability for the murders and disappearances of indigenous women in British Columbia, Human Rights Watch said today. The landmark visit and mounting international attention to violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada should send another signal to the Canadian government about the critical need to convene a national commission of inquiry.
“This visit is an important step toward accountability for decades of murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls in British Columbia,” said Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Accountability is a necessity for the safe future of indigenous women and girls across Canada.”
Tracy Robinson, rapporteur on the rights of women, and Dinah Shelton, rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, visited Ottawa, Prince George, and Vancouver to speak with relevant government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, families of victims, and others about the murders and disappearances. They plan to issue a report with their findings.
The visit follows two hearings at the Inter-American Commission in Washington, DC, in 2012 and 2013, at which the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Feminist Alliance for International Action presented information about the murders and disappearances in British Columbia and violence against indigenous women across Canada. Government representatives at each hearing responded with information about the measures being taken to address the problem.
Violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada is drawing increased attention from international human rights bodies. More than a dozen countries raised the issue during Canada’s second periodic review by the United Nations Human Rights Council in April. At the review, which all UN member countries undergo every four years, the government elaborated on measures it is taking to address the issue, including establishment of the National Center for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, police task forces to investigate cases, and development of community safety plans.
Later in 2013, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is expected to visit Canada to conduct its own inquiry into the murders and disappearances.
“The international community clearly recognizes the gravity of the situation, and the question is when the Canadian government will,” Rhoad said. “The half measures it has adopted are no substitute for a national commission of inquiry into the ongoing violence faced by indigenous women and girls and the development of a national action plan to assure their safety.”
In February, Human Rights Watch released “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada.” The report documents the failure of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in British Columbia to protect indigenous women and girls from violence. It also documents abusive police behavior against indigenous women and girls, including excessive use of force, and physical and sexual assault. The report found that Canada has inadequate police complaint mechanisms and oversight procedures, including a lack of a mandate for independent civilian investigations into all reported incidents of serious police misconduct.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada had documented 582 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada as of March 2010. Many of the killings and disappearances were between the 1960s and the 1990s, but 39 percent occurred after 2000. The number of cases is undoubtedly higher today. But comprehensive data is not available since the government cut funding for the organization’s database, and police forces in Canada do not consistently collect race and ethnicity data.
The country’s federal political opposition, human rights organizations, and indigenous groups, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations, have recommended that the government form a national commission of inquiry into the overwhelmingly high levels of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada. Public national inquiries allow for impartial investigation into issues of national importance. In July 2013, the premiers of provinces and territories across Canada announced their support for a national inquiry.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government has repeatedly declined to act on this recommendation. At the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in May, Harper expressed skepticism about the utility of commissions of inquiry generally in response to a question from Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, about the need for an inquiry into the hundreds of murders and disappearances.
In February the federal government established an all-party committee in Canada’s House of Commons to hold hearings on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and to propose solutions to address root causes of violence. The committee has made limited progress and came under criticism for lacking clear direction, giving government witnesses priority over family members of victims, and failing to consider alternative, culturally sensitive methods of family and community participation.
“We hope that the special parliamentary committee can get on track to address the violence against indigenous women and girls in an inclusive and meaningful way,” Rhoad said. “Ultimately though, we see this as a prelude to, rather than a substitute for, a national commission of inquiry that will have greater independence.”