Indigenous groups from across Canada descended on Winnipeg, MB, Nov. 1 and 2 to discuss the systemic problem of hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in the country.
But their demands for a federal public inquiry into the issue resulted only in promises by provincial and territorial ministers to examine it further. Surprising, since this year’s National Aboriginal Women’s Summit differed from its two predecessors in having this specific topic and goal.
Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association President Cheryl Maloney attended the summit, along with a delegation of local chiefs and the family members of the late Nora Bernard and Tanya Brooks. The women are two of the 582 cases the organization has documented of Indigenous women who have gone missing and/or been murdered in the Atlantic region.
The Halifax Media Co-op caught up with Maloney for a reaction on the summit.
Halifax Media Co-op (HMC): The Nova Scotia Native Women’s just celebrated its 40th anniversary. How have you seen the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women's cases evolve in that time?
Cheryl Maloney (CM): I know one of the early cases of a Mik’maq woman from Indian Brook First Nation. She was murdered in the States but her murderers were from Canada and U.S. and it took, because of cross-jurisdictional issues, 35 years for her family to find justice in her case. That’s typical.
Or, a lot of the cases, they’re not solved at all. Eighty per cent of the homicides or missing/murdered non-Native women come to some fruition, some justice, and in the Mi'kmaq or Aboriginal world, I think the numbers are 45% or so. So, you have to look at the systemic issues.
What happens is unless the families go public and call the public repeatedly for years and harass the justice system, often these cases sit undone and no one’s doing anything about it. So the burden falls on the families.
The progress I think we can say we’ve witnessed is that it is an issue now in the Canadian public.
It’s not enough of an issue because we didn’t get the commitment we needed from the provinces and the territories at the summit, and the federal government didn’t even show up to the summit. So that was disappointing.
Our previous National Aboriginal Women’s Summit, the first one in Newfoundland [in 2007], we were … shoulder-to-shoulder with the premiers addressing issues. This time it was far less: we were there with ministers, who had no mandate, and they knew we were there for one issue. They knew what we were asking for. They knew we wanted a missing and murdered national women’s inquiry and we didn’t get it. It was just a nice exercise for them, I guess, because they weren’t ready to do anything.
HMC: Why do you think a national inquiry and national action plan to address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women is the best course of action?
CM: Our concern about a ‘task force’ and anything lower and less is that what normally happens is that the governments go and do what little they’re willing to do; it’s not done in partnership with us; it’s not done in public; and it’s not going to look at the issue of missing and murdered women and the cases across the country, and the wide scope, and mandate that an inquiry would give. It would be less.
And often they’re — I don't want to say a waste of time and energy — but it’s like the B.C. [Missing Women Commission] Inquiry: they did something without engaging the Aboriginal people … and it’s not successful. They had lawyers for the Crown … and one for Aboriginal people. It wasn’t meaningful to Aboriginal people.
So there are concerns about processes that are not going to give the full scope and mandate that we need. We need to be there to evidence it, and Canadians and the international world need to see what’s going on in Canada’s backyard.
HMC: The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and other Indigenous groups were excluded from the summit and held their own meeting at the same time, which you attended. What did you think of this separate event?
CM: I think the problem with how Canada’s approaching the missing and murdered women’s file is that it’s been exclusive to Aboriginal people.
I know British Columbia hosted a conference on Aboriginal women’s violence in June, but the agenda and the participation was so closed and tight that there were groups in the Downtown East Side, Vancouver, that couldn’t get into this conference. And I attended that conference and I found there was no opportunity for participants to speak freely.
So right now the things that are being put forth are not inclusive of Aboriginal people. We’re getting frustrated with the words or what the government will put on paper, saying, ‘This is what we’re doing for Aboriginal people, for the issue.’ To them it looks good on paper but to the Aboriginal people that are working on the ground, with families and the issue, there’s just been exclusion across the country. That’s why we really need an inquiry, a public inquiry.
HMC: The next summit will be held in Nova Scotia in 2014. What do you hope the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association accomplishes between then and now?
CM: We’re hopeful. We’re not looking at how Manitoba held this [National Aboriginal Women’s Summit]. … We’re going to model our summit in Nova Scotia on the Newfoundland, and that was that premier Danny Williams had invited all the premiers in Canada and there was representation and participation from the federal government.
We’re hoping that in Nova Scotia in 2014, when we bring our women to the table, that it is inclusive of our women, but that it’s going to bring the decision makers that can make decisions. To bring in ministers without cabinet authority or a mandate was pretty much a waste of the time and the money, because they knew what we were looking for and they couldn't address it …
We’re working closely with the province of Nova Scotia and my organization and the Native Women's Association of Canada to co-host this and plan it, and we're starting already.
HMC: Final words?
CM: After I left the summit, I went to the Aboriginal Peoples Music Choice Awards and the messaging of our musicians and our artists was amazing. Their messaging was on our youth and hope for the future and residential schools.
And I’m now working with some well-known film producers and we will be working on establishing an Aboriginal arts campaign to raise awareness. So we’ll be bringing our artists, our musicians, our filmmakers, our writers — all to start messaging on this issue over the country, to make it an Aboriginal and a mainstream issue.
I think in order to get what we need in our public inquiry, we need Canadians and we need our grassroots because right now the politicians are trying to do it and politics are difficult. So we’re going wide stream, mainstream and social media. So hopefully when we get back together to discuss this issue again, we’ll have more of a mandate and hopefully we’ll have the support of Canadians and our grassroots people speaking up on it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.