1st Session, 41st Parliament,
Volume 150, Issue 168
Thursday, May 30, 2013
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker
Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women
On the Order:
Resuming debate on the inquiry of the Honourable Senator Lovelace Nicholas, calling the attention of the Senate to the continuing tragedy of missing and murdered Aboriginal Women.
Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, it has been over 30 years since Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This convention requires the state not only to condemn, prevent and punish all forms of discrimination against women but also to address the root causes of discrimination. Canada has failed to uphold this commitment, and calls for action by international human rights authorities have not been answered. Today, I wish to add my voice to those calling for a national inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Last December, Senator Lovelace Nicholas and Senator Dyck gave compelling and compassionate speeches on this topic. I want to thank them for their tireless dedication and unwavering commitment to this issue.
I am also pleased to point out that a motion moved by a Liberal MP to strike a special committee responsible for examining the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls was unanimously adopted in the other place in February.
The motion called on the House of Commons to recognize:
That a disproportionate number of Indigenous women and girls have suffered violence, gone missing, or been murdered over the past three decades;
That the government has a responsibility to provide justice for the victims, healing for the families, and to work with partners to put an end to the violence; and
That a special committee be appointed, with the mandate to conduct hearings on the critical matter of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and to propose solutions to address the root causes of violence against Indigenous women across the country.
This is an important step towards finding a solution to the problem of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Nevertheless, it is critically important that there be a comprehensive and independent national inquiry into this matter.
As a senator from British Columbia, I would like to contribute to the debate in the Senate on this issue by outlining the findings of British Columbia’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry and by reporting on developments in British Columbia since the report’s public release in December of last year. In so doing, I seek to acknowledge the positive steps that have been taken by also highlighting the urgent need for a commission of inquiry with powers to conduct a full-scale judicial investigation.
According to the Privy Council Office, commissions of inquiry are led by distinguished individuals, experts or judges and have the power to subpoena witnesses, take evidence under oath and request documents. A commission of inquiry’s findings and recommendations are not binding. However, many have a significant impact on public opinion and the shaping of public policy.
To build on the work of the B.C. commission of inquiry and to ensure the rights of women and girls across Canada are protected, we need to take steps to identify and address the root causes of the problem.
A national commission of inquiry is the best vehicle to accomplish this task. In December 2010, the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia issued an order-in-council to establish the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Wally Oppal, a former Attorney General of British Columbia, was named commissioner.
The Oppal Commission had a fourfold mandate:
First of all, inquire into and make findings of fact respecting the conduct of the investigations conducted between January 23, 1997, and February 5, 2002, by police forces in British Columbia respecting women reported missing from the Downtown Eastside of the city of Vancouver;
Second, inquire into and make findings of fact respecting the decision of the Criminal Justice Branch on January 27, 1998, to enter a stay of proceedings on charges against Robert William Pickton of attempted murder, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and aggravated assault;
Third, recommend changes considered necessary respecting the initiation and conduct of investigations in British Columbia of missing women and suspected multiple homicides;
Fourth, recommend changes considered necessary respecting homicide investigations in British Columbia by more than one investigating organization, including the coordination of those investigations.
The Missing Women Inquiry presented unique challenges. The years of continued institutional disregard for the missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside created anger and frustration in the families and community participants. There was an overriding skepticism in the inquiry process, combined with the significant doubts that the inquiry would make any difference at all.
I want to give special credit to Mr. Art Vertlieb, Q.C., who served as legal counsel to the commissioner. His skill, experience and commitment ensured that the necessary evidence was presented in the inquiry in a fair and respectful manner. His understanding of the issues, his compassion for the victims and his belief in the importance of the work of the inquiry was instrumental in producing a report that has truly made a difference.
On December 17, the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry released its report called Forsaken. The report includes four volumes: Volume I, The Women, Their Lives and the Framework of Inquiry: Setting the Context for Understanding and Change; Volume II, Nobodies: How and Why We Failed the Missing and Murdered Women; Volume III, Gone, but Not Forgotten: Building the Women’s Legacy of Safety Together; and Volume IV, The Commission’s Process.
The 1,148-page report also includes a 180-page executive summary. It is a lengthy, detailed and important text that tells a devastating story and recommends important policy actions.
Honourable senators, I would like to begin my overview by sharing the story of Sarah de Vries. Sarah de Vries was of a mixed racial background: White, Black, Mexican and Aboriginal. She was adopted into a Vancouver family in April 1970. Throughout her life, Ms. de Vries maintained journals, some of which described the isolation she felt growing up as a woman of colour in a predominantly White community. She faced overt racism at school, part of which manifested in the form of verbal and physical abuse from her schoolmates. Her sister, Maggie, believes that a neighbour sexually abused Sarah repeatedly throughout her childhood.
By the time her parents divorced in the early 1990s, Ms. de Vries was increasingly troubled and unhappy. At the young age of 14, Ms. de Vries ran away and began experimenting with drugs. By the age of 17, she was living in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Throughout her time in the Downtown Eastside, Sarah’s journals chronicled the incidents of violence she encountered as a sex worker. She spoke of her powerlessness and marginalization, of her fear and of her hopelessness. Honourable senators, here is an excerpt from Ms. de Vries’ journals:
So many women, so many that I never even knew about, are missing in action.
It’s getting to be a daily part of life.
Someone dies and it’s like someone just did something normal.
I can’t find the right words.
A woman who works the Hastings Street area gets murdered, and nothing… It’s a shame that society is that unfeeling.
She was some woman’s baby girl, gone astray, lost from the right path.
She was a person.
Ms. de Vries’ words are profound in their sadness, but also in their honesty. They are the best response to anyone who would question the report’s title, Forsaken. If things were different, perhaps Ms. de Vries would have been a novelist, a poet, a journalist, or maybe even a politician. Instead, Ms. de Vries disappeared on April 14, 1998; just minutes after a friend had seen her standing at a corner.
Robert Pickton was charged in 2005 with the murder of Ms. de Vries after her DNA was found on the farm, but the charges were later stayed. According to the Canadian Police Information Centre, there are 1,559 missing women cases in Canada. I want to repeat that number: 1,559 missing women cases in our great country of Canada.
According to Sisters in Spirit, a research and education policy initiative facilitated by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and funded by the Government of Canada until its dismantling in 2010, there are now more than 582 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.
What is it about numbers that makes us feel so numb? The Oppal report rightly points out that the word “missing” is a gentle euphemism for the cruel reality that most of the women have endured. There are 582 lives that have been stolen and yet, as great a country as we are, we remain paralyzed. “Missing” and “murdered” may involve rape, assault, pain, torture and most definitely fear, but no words can effectively articulate the horror these women have faced.
When Commissioner Oppal announced the title of his 1,500-page report, Forsaken, he stated these women had been forsaken twice: once by society and a second time by the police.
Virtually all of the missing and murdered women were socially and economically marginalized.
They faced challenges such as abuse, poverty, addiction, racism, mental health problems, insecure housing, a lack of education and the intergenerational impact of residential schools.
These factors made them very vulnerable to all types of violence, including serial predation. According to the report:
Eradicating the problem of violence against women involves addressing the root causes of marginalization, notably sexism, racism and the ongoing pervasive effects of the colonization of Aboriginal peoples — all of which contribute to the poverty and insecurity in which many women live.
Sex trade workers are treated as morally and socially distinct from other women. Society sees these women as less deserving of respect and protection. Consequently, the violence they experience becomes normalized and, in some cases, expected. The systemic problems that resulted in the disappearance and murder of Aboriginal women were exacerbated by inadequate police work.
The critical police failures include: poor reports on missing women; faulty risk analysis and risk assessment; inadequate proactive strategies to prevent further harm to women in the Downtown Eastside area; failure to consider and properly pursue all investigative strategies, including a strategy for dealing with Aboriginal peoples; failure to follow major case management practices and policies; failure to address cross-jurisdictional issues and ineffective coordination; and failure of internal review and external accountability mechanisms.
These police failures were the result of discrimination, systemic institutional bias, and political and public indifference; poor systems and limited and outdated policing approaches and standards; fragmentation of policing; inadequate resources and allocation issues; police culture and poor management of personnel; inadequate training and allegations of conspiracy and cover-up.
All of these elements contributed to the creation of a society that allows violence against Aboriginal women to continue.
Commissioner Oppal’s report included an extensive list of 63 recommendations, including creating a regional police force and an independent committee to develop a proposed model and implementation plan for such a force; providing more public funds toward support services so that emergency centres for women in the sex trade can remain open 24 hours a day; developing and implementing an enhanced public transit system to provide safe travel between northern communities, particularly along Highway 16, referred to in my province as the Highway of Tears, where many Aboriginal women have gone missing; providing compensation for children of missing and murdered women; conducting equality audits on police forces with the aim of protecting marginalized and Aboriginal women from violence; funding more sex trade liaison officer positions and considering re-establishing the Vancouver Police and Native Liaison Society; and developing a Crown vulnerable women assault policy to provide guidance on prosecution of crimes of violence against vulnerable women, including women engaged in the sex trade.
Since this policy was released, British Columbia has implemented its recommendations by adopting an action plan that involved appointing the former Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, Steven Point, to lead an advisory committee on the safety of vulnerable women; committing $750,000 in funding to allow the WISH Drop-In Centre Society to provide support services to vulnerable women; allowing the provincial Ministry of Transportation to develop a consultation plan to resolve transportation-related issues; and examining changes to policies related to equality and vulnerable witnesses within the Criminal Justice Branch of the provincial Ministry of Justice.
Sadly, since his appointment, which was seen as a good one, Mr. Point has resigned.
Honourable senators, I have taken this opportunity to speak today because I have met with the parents and the relatives of women who have disappeared. As a politician from British Columbia, I am very embarrassed. If these were women from another community, not the Aboriginal community, there would be such an outcry in our country. Instead, there is a deafening silence. Even my friends are not willing to hear what I have to say. There is a deafening silence because the women are Aboriginal. We should be embarrassed that over 500 women have gone missing, and in our great country of Canada there is a deafening silence.
Dawn Crey was a member of the Sto:lo First Nation. Her parents were residential school survivors. After witnessing her father die from a heart attack as a child, an event said to have impacted her significantly, her mother began drinking. Ms. Crey became addicted to drugs in her teens and struggled with mental health. At one point, she attacked the man she was staying with in a desperate attempt to be admitted to Colony Farm hospital, a mental health institution. Despite receiving treatment throughout her life, Ms. Crey was never able to conquer her addictions. She ended up downtown. In 1990, two women threw acid at Ms. Crey, severely scarring her face and scalp and causing her constant pain. Ms. Crey disappeared in 2000. Her DNA was later recovered from the Pickton farm. Murder charges were recommended but never laid.
Ms. Crey is gone, but she is not forgotten. In 2006, Christine Welsh made a film about missing and murdered Aboriginal women that features Dawn. The film is called Finding Dawn. Ms. Crey is only one victim who could have benefited from expanded support services at the WISH Drop-in Centre.
Honourable senators, I commend the work of Commissioner Oppal and the efforts of the British Columbia government since the report’s release. The report is complicated and has many recommendations. It speaks to the tragedy that encompasses every corner of our country. Mr. Art Vertlieb, legal counsel to the missing women inquiry, told me that the RCMP has repeatedly asserted that the provincial inquiry has no jurisdiction to look into the management and operation of the RCMP. Any attempt by a provincial inquiry to do this is challenged — by law, it is not within the provincial inquiry jurisdiction. When the RCMP participated in the provincial Braidwood Inquiry on Tasers, this was strongly asserted. The RCMP was clear that they were only participating out of a spirit of cooperation. Honourable senators, to legally look at management, training and how the RCMP works in the area of missing and murdered women, a federal inquiry must be commissioned.
The RCMP is the principal police force in the majority of the provinces, the notable exceptions being the Ontario Provincial Police, the Sûreté du Québec and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. Considering the RCMP’s role in protecting vulnerable women is one of the several reasons that we urgently need a national inquiry.
I stand before honourable senators to ask for support for the work of Senator Lovelace Nicholas and Senator Dyck.
(On motion of Senator Cordy, debate adjourned.)