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Who Will Be Seen?

Harper meets the Parsons, ignores countless others

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

There are 582 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Chances are Prime Minister Stephen Harper will not meet with their families.  photo: Hillary Bain Lindsay
There are 582 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Chances are Prime Minister Stephen Harper will not meet with their families. photo: Hillary Bain Lindsay

On the one hand, Cheryl Maloney is glad the Prime Minister met with Rehtaeh Parsons parents this week.  The meeting was a result of public outcry following Parsons' suicide, after she said she had been gang raped and then relentlessly bullied.  

On the other hand, Maloney, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, can't help but notice the families Harper refuses to see.  "What about all our cases?" she asks.

Maloney is calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.  According to Sisters in Spirit, a research, education and policy initiative led by Aboriginal women from 2005 until 2010, there are at least 582 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in this country.  

"I would love for the Prime Minister to make a comment about missing and murdered Aboriginal women or to meet some of our parents and our families," says Maloney.  

Nine provinces are supporting the call for an inquiry, but the response from the federal government has been "dead silence," according to Maloney.  

"We share their pain," says Maloney of the Parsons family's loss.  She has witnessed that pain many times.  Maloney supports the families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.  She says families are often forced to carry a burden beyond the loss of a loved one.  

"Young families of missing and murdered women are out there on their own trying to get investigations, doing searches for their people," she says.  "Things that you'd think the government of Canada, and the justice system, and search and rescue, and police forces would be doing."

Bridget Tolley volunteers with Families of Sisters in Spirit, a grassroots non-profit led by families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.  The organization was created after the federal government ceased funding to Sisters in Spirit in 2010.  

She echoes Maloney's account of what happens when an Aboriginal woman goes missing or is murdered.  In 2008, two young women went missing from Tolley's community, Kitigan Zibi, in Quebec.  "When these two girls went missing, nobody cared, nobody came, there was no media, no search, nothing.  The police said they were runaways, that they'll be back.  But they never came back."

Tolley too has mixed reactions to Harper's meeting with the Parsons.  On one hand she is glad the case is being taken seriously.  "But we get treated differently," she says.  "Native people get treated differently.  When something happens like this, we don't get to meet the Prime Minister."

Rene Ross says it's not just Native women being treated differently.  "I'm talking about black women, sex workers, women on income assistance.  This is about everybody," says Ross, executive director of Stepping Stone, an organization that supports sex workers in the Maritimes.

"We can judge the health and safety of our communities by the health and safety of our most marginalized," she says.  And according to Ross, Nova Scotia is not a safe place. "It's a provincial crisis," she says.  

"Countless women and girls in the the last 20 years alone have died as a result of this crisis," she says.  "We are talking about rape, suicide, murder, attempted murder.  Some of the most horrific activities in our society have been happening in our province...We've been telling policy makers and government for years and years."

According to the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, Nova Scotia has the highest rate of sexual assault, per capita, in Canada.  

In 2008, a report entitled Suffering in Silence: An assessment of the Need for a Comprehensive Response to Sexual Violence in Nova Scotia was published.  The report details the prevalence of sexual violence and outlines steps that need to be taken from the perspectives of survivors and professionals.  

"Reports [on violence and sexual violence] continue to be ignored," says Ross.  

Maloney hopes that the outrage and sorrow surrounding Rehtaeh Parsons' death is a sign that we are at a turning point.  "It's awoken Canadian society to violence against girls in this country."

"I would hope that [the Parsons family], in their grief and sorrow, know that there's so many people out there," says Maloney.  "They have a good opportunity to advocate for all missing and murdered women, women who died from violence or bullying, including Aboriginal women."

As Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh's mother, posted on a Facebook after meeting with the Prime Minister,  "…it could have easily been anyone's daughter. The cruelty is out there…We need a cultural shift in our attitude towards the treatment of other human beings, towards rape...we need it now before someone else is affected."

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