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July 16, 2019

Missing and Murdered

Reuel S. Amdur

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The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Reclaiming Power and Place, is a massive, two-volume document. There has been considerable controversy around the report's contention that what has happened to Aboriginal women, girls, and sexual minorities is genocide, but since genocide applies not only to slaughtering people but also to instituting programs that aim to destroy a culture, Canada's treatment of Aboriginal peoples clearly falls under that term. The report spells out in detail, example after example, of just how this was carried out, especially but not only in the residential schools. However, there is a major basic weakness, going back all the way to its original charge.

A wider focus was needed, not only on females but on all Aboriginals.  Murder of Aboriginal males is two to three times more common.  When Wally Oppal focused on women in his British Columbia report, that focus was appropriate.  He was asked to report on women, primarily from Vancouver’s Lower East Side.  The same focus in this report is wrong-headed and inappropriate.  Males as well as females inherit the destruction of family and culture and the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of the residential schools, the punishment for use of their indigenous languages, their forced religious indoctrination at the expense of their previous spiritual beliefs, and the prohibition of their customary practices.

This historical abuse is central to the problems of the destruction of healthy family life that persists to today.  Those who went through the residential schools did not have a positive, loving family experience and as a result were not provided with the basis for their own parenting.

How, then, do we address the problem of violence in Aboriginal communities and to Aboriginals?  First of all, why are they vulnerable?  There appear to be two main reasons: poverty and lack of education, especially emotional education.  Flowing from these are also despondency, despair, and substance abuse.

These things affect self-worth and limit access to choices in society, including choices that give protection.  Adequate income enables people to affect their surroundings and gives them more options.  Thus, if for example, if a woman is a victim of abuse, adequate financial resources constitute the basis for choosing to leave the abuser and to do so without fear of being unable to support herself and her children. 

The report touches on the need for an adequate universal income.  It should have been a larger focus.  More generally, the need is for a much-diminished income gap and less skewed distribution of and control over wealth.  We need heavier taxation for redistribution and a wealth tax.  At the same time, it is necessary to stop demonizing and pauperizing those on social assistance. 

As an interim measure, before such a program is fully implemented, social assistance needs to become adequate for good nutrition, adequate housing, and the wherewithal to live in conditions of dignity and decency.  This kind of social policy cannot be for Aboriginals alone.  Aboriginals are victimized not just because of their ethnic minority status and history of oppression.  They are also targets of discrimination because they are poor and need of financial assistance, which reactionary governments provide grudgingly. 

And what should be done to deal with the deficit in family life skills? Here we need to rely on education. With the problem of rampant sexual and child sexual abuse, there is a need for thorough sex education. The report gives as one example a program in early grades to teach children the difference between good touching and bad touching. Children also need to learn about healthy relationships in the family and more broadly in school and in the community. Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and relationships, the fourth “r.” While this kind of program is important in enhancing the social functioning of all students, it is especially appropriate for children who come from deprived situations in which many Aboriginal children find themselves.

Adequate financial availability and appropriate education are not enough.  We also need to deal with the consequences of this genocide here and now.  Mental health counselling should be readily available.  The report wants on-reserve child welfare to be funded at the same level as child welfare off reserve.  Not good enough.  The extent of the damage that needs to be addressed calls for greater funding. 

The report also calls for native self-government.  Just what this might entail is a rather complex matter.  One suggestion is that it should cover child welfare.  However, there have been serious problems with First Nations child welfare agencies.  Take the case of Lester Desjarlais, a teen who committed suicide after years of sexual abuse.  He was under the care of Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services at the time and band bigwigs were actively interfering with the agency’s efforts to protect him.  This case of inappropriate interference with care was not alone in the annals of native child welfare organizations, according to the judge who wrote the report on the Desjarlais file.

We are urged to make services for Aboriginals culturally appropriate.  Yes, but we also need to recognize that culture is learned, not genetically inherited.  We need to meet Aboriginals where they are, not where we might wish them to be.  In some cases acculturation to Western ways has been quite successful.  One Aboriginal man on the Oujé-Bougoumou Quebec reserve who wanted to identify with his ancestral culture built a sweat lodge.  His band council, made up of Evangelical Christians, had it torn down.

Proposals for changes in sentencing for offences against Aboriginal females and sexual minorities are questionable.  The report suggests that lawmakers “eliminate definitions of offenses and minimize the culpability of the offender.”  The meaning of this is not entirely clear.  Does the report suggest that we “lock ‘em up and throw away the key?”  The report also suggests that violence against Aboriginal females and sexual minorities be seen as aggravating factors in sentencing.  Many cases of such violence are perpetrated by other Aboriginals.  Currently, judges are instructed to consider Aboriginal condition as a mitigating factor.  So we are to augment the punishment and then lessen it.

One final thought.  The Inquiry combined fact-finding and research on the one hand and provision of an opportunity for catharsis on the other.  One is reminded of Stephen Leacock’s short story in which a man jumps on a horse and rides off in all directions.  Perhaps these two needs might have better been addressed separately.

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