In a stark contrast to his predecessor, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced an inquiry into the disappearance of an estimated 1200 indigenous women and girls across Canada.
The announcement came on December 8, following a meeting with Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs in Gatineau, Quebec.
The assembly’s national chief, Perry Bellegrade, called the announcement “a long time coming.”
“After years of denial and deflection, it is my hope we can make real strides in achieving justice for families and achieving safety and security for all our people,” Bellegrade said in a written statement to the CBC.
Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said that the government will consult the families of victims on how to proceed. Wilson-Raybould is the first indigenous person to serve in the position.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was criticized for his unwillingness to acknowledge the severity of the issue, famously stating it “isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”
Harper declined to authorize a public inquiry on the murders and disappearances even after a United Nations watchdog urged action and an Amnesty International campaign called the murder rate “so high it constitutes nothing less than a national human rights crisis.”
Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, however, has reversed this approach, pledging full support from the Conservative Party.
“If the Liberal government wants to do an inquiry, and they think that’s an important thing to do, I will support it,” said Ambrose during an interview on CBC News Network’s Power & Politics. “This is an absolutely non-partisan issue.”
Several high profile crimes against First Nations women and girls, notably the horrific murder of 15 year-old Tina Fontaine in August of 2014, whose body was found in the Red River, have galvanized widespread public support for an inquiry.
The aboriginal community around the Red River hoped that Tina’s horrific death meant something would finally change. But in the year after her body was found in a bag by the shoreline, four more indigenous women were killed in Winnipeg, and another one outside of the city.
“She’s a child,” homicide investigator Sergeant John O’Donovan told the CBC shortly after Tina was discovered. “This is a child that has been murdered…Society should be horrified.”
First Nations women are grossly overrepresented among Canada’s murdered and missing women, a trend that has continued for more than three decades and shows no signs of slowing down. A report issued by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in spring of 2014 found that found more than 1,000 cases of murdered and missing indigenous women between 1980 and 2012.
“The victims deserve justice, their families an opportunity to heal and to be heard,” Trudeau said during a speech, the Associated Press reported. “We must work together to put an end to this ongoing tragedy.”
According to the RCMP, aboriginal women account for roughly 16 percent of all female homicides while they represent only 4.3 percent of Canada’s overall female population. The findings corroborated similar rates reported by the Native Women’s Association of Canada,
Between 1908 and 2013, 1,181 aboriginal women went missing or were murdered. Among those, 1,017 were killed.
B.C.’s infamous “Highway of Tears” – the 724 kilometre stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Price Rupert has seen the disappearance of nine young women between 1969 and 2006. All but one woman was indigenous.
Gloria Moody, a Nuxalk woman from Bella Coola, is recognized as the first case in the Highway of Tears. Moody disappeared while taking a weekend trip to Williams Lake on October 25, 1969, and her body was found approximately 10 km west of the city. Her case has never been solved.
In October 2007, the RCMP expanded the number of women in their investigation to 18 and increased the total kilometres to approximately 1500, which included the Highway of Tears and parts of Highway 97 and Highway 5. The cases involved in the project now ranged in date from 1969 to 2006.
No new cases have been added to the RCMP investigation since 2006; however, young women still continue to experience violence along British Columbia highways.
“For indigenous peoples, life in Canada has not been — and is not today — easy, equitable or fair,” Trudeau told the Commons in December.
Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu said “we are very excited to move forward on this file.”
“Murdered and missing indigenous women is a national tragedy that not only affects women but their families and their communities. And so we intend to move incredibly quickly and with a great deal of respect.”
The government provided details about the first phase of the inquiry, which will include consultation with the victims’ families, aboriginal organizations, experts and other national stakeholders to lay the groundwork for the launch of an inquiry in 2016.
“We really do see a two-phase approach where we do set some parameters about what this inquiry will look like, and then we move forward into the actual inquiry itself,” said Hajdu.