A tragic phenomenon is unfolding across Canada – women and girls, the majority of whom have light coloured hair and blue or green eyes – are going missing at an alarming rate in provinces across the country. It appears that females of Dutch, English and Scottish descent are specifically being targeted, and the numbers in recent years have been staggering. Up to 33 per year are reported missing – some of them suspected of being sold by traffickers, others turning up dead by rivers or in forests, and some never found at all. Sadly, despite pleas from distraught parents and community leaders, the federal government is hesitant to take a deeper look at what is happening.
I may have just lied. But just a little. Women and girls across Canada are going missing at an alarming rate. They are being profiled and targeted. They are being found dead or trafficked. And the government is unwilling to address it. But these women and girls are not of Dutch, English, or Scottish decent. They are Aboriginal. But since racism still prevails in our country, writing an article about missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls does not grab our attention as it should.
If you’re anything like me, you’re more likely to read about something that hits close to home, something that could potentially affect you personally. It’s a default mindset for most people, but we don’t have to stay there – humans have a great capacity for compassion and relationships, and it’s time we begin to listen to what Native communities are saying. If white Canadians were disappearing at the same rate as Aboriginal women and girls, the government would no doubt be taking more action.
A recent RCMP report put the total of missing and murdered Native women at 1,181. Over the course of the last three and a half decades, that averages out to about 33 per year. Aboriginal women make up 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, but they account for 16 per cent of female homicides. Just earlier this month, Rinelle Harper, a Winnipeg teen who was sexually assaulted, violently beaten, and left for dead, spoke out about her experience and added her voice to a growing push for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.
What exactly is a public inquiry? It is an official review, ordered by government, of important public events or issues. Its purpose is to establish the facts and causes of an event or issue, and then to make recommendations to the government. In the case of missing and murdered Aboriginal girls and women, a public inquiry:
- Would seek to identify the factors causing these deaths and disappearances
- Could identify instances in which indigenous women were treated differently by the authorities
- Provide legal clout to gain access to files, to “essentially force people to come forward if they are subpoenaed and testify, and discuss what happened in a number of these cases where it was obvious that [Aboriginal] women were being treated differently.” (CBC News)
So what is the response of the federal government? Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that the issue “should not be viewed as a sociological phenomenon,” but rather as crime. In essence, the official stance of the national government is to treat these cases individually, without examining the common elements that make this issue a systemic one. It is no surprise, then, that the federal government is not willing to call a national inquiry.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said that Harper is “refusing to hold a national inquiry because the results could bring to light the societal issues plaguing Canada’s Aboriginal people and the federal government’s responsibility to fix them.”
On a more positive note, there is potential for a roundtable discussion with federal, provincial and Aboriginal leaders. But if the federal government is not willing to consider this trend as a sociological, systemic issue, proper action will be a challenge. Ignoring systemic root causes will only lead to band-aid solutions instead of preventative surgery.
This article is part two in my series on ensuring the success of Canada’s new prostitution law. As I’ve said before, in order for us to tackle the issue of sexual exploitation, we have to look at it holistically. The preamble to the new prostitution law says:
Whereas it is important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution, which has a disproportionate impact on women and children…
The human dignity and equality of Aboriginal people, and even more specifically Aboriginal women and girls, are being violated. If we are unwilling to look at the systemic injustice they face, many of them will continue falling into prostitution – whether it be through force or desperation. According to this article, of the prostituted women interviewed in a survey, 52 percent were First Nation and 90 percent of sex-trafficked teens were Aboriginal. If we are to align ourselves with the new law’s preamble, we must acknowledge that gender inequality, race, incest and histories of oppression are the pillars of the sex trade, including prostitution. If we fail to address these, we fail to deal with sexual exploitation.
Some critics of the new prostitution law say that instead of trying to decrease demand for paid sex, the government should decriminalize the entire industry so that marginalized, Aboriginal women can continue to sell sex without fear that their customers will get arrested. In essence, this is saying that we should keep prostitution as a viable option for the most vulnerable people in our society – despite the fact that even in fully legal regimes, they do not have the relative bargaining power to negotiate safety in an industry that is inherently violent.
As Bridget Perrier from the Ojibwe First Nation puts it,
“We have endured genocide and now if they legalize prostitution, they will rubber-stamp commercial rape and continued desecration. As Aboriginal women and as women of colour, the time is now to take our lives back from those who exploit us and colonize our bodies.” (Huffington Post)
It seems that the federal government wants to tackle sexual exploitation by focusing primarily on demand, but is not willing to look at sociological causes on the supply end. On the flip side, other groups don’t want to reduce demand at all, but focus solely on harm reduction. Neither of these in isolation form a comprehensive response to the issue of sexual exploitation.
Reducing demand for paid sex is absolutely vital if we are to tackle sex trafficking, which is why I have been an advocate of demand reduction strategies for a long time. We must reduce demand if we are serious about preventing sexual exploitation because there simply are not enough ’empowered’ people to provide supply, leaving vulnerable groups to fill the void. The government’s new prostitution law takes this into account by criminalizing the purchase of sex. But in order for the new law to have more clout and to follow the spirit of its preamble, we must take into consideration the plight of marginalized groups in our society that are most likely to fall into the sex trade.
Our plea to Prime Minister Stephen Harper is to call a National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Aboriginal Women and Girls.
Not only will it honour the request of thousands in Canada’s First Nation communities, but will also serve as a tool to bolster the effectiveness of the new prostitution law by identifying the underlying, systemic factors that push so many women and girls into the sex industry.
This, in partnership with demand reduction, has great potential to decrease sexual exploitation in our country.
As we head into an election year, these issues should be on the forefront of our minds. At the very least, I hope to see the federal government represented at a roundtable with provincial and Aboriginal leaders in the next few months, and that they are willing to see the requests of the Aboriginal community through a lens of systemic social justice.
And as we encourage our government to take action, let’s also look at our own hearts. Are we harbouring prejudices? Do we need to take some time and listen to the stories of those who have been pushed to the margins? Do we understand what First Nations communities are asking for?
For more reading:
- Teenaged Assault Victim Calls for Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women
- Murdered aboriginal women: What to know about a national public inquiry
- A national inquiry would empower First Nation women
- O Canada! Will You Free Your Glorious Land of Prostitution?
- Aboriginal women, girls targets for human trafficking, says news report
- Half of First Nations children live in poverty
- Tom Mulcair vows aboriginal women inquiry within 100 days if NDP elected
To learn more about Canada’s prostitution law through my current series:
- Ensuring the Success of Canada’s New Prostitution Law (Introduction)
- Ensuring the Success of Canada’s New Prostitution Law (Part 1: Addressing Poverty)