06.09.2015 11:41 PM

In this week’s Hill Times: murdered aboriginal women deserve justice – not a judicial inquiry

It happens so often, you can almost set your watch by it.

Someone in Ottawa has a press conference, or asks a question in the House of Commons, or responds to an important bit of news. And, too often, they demand an inquiry or a royal commission or some sort of a judicial probe into malfeasance and misfeasance. Happens all the time.

It happened again, last week, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a well-considered report about the abomination that was Canada’s residential school system. The report — which was only a summary, and a precursor to a six-volume release that will come later — offered up nearly 100 recommendations. One of them was an inquiry into the hundreds of cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women.

The demand for an inquiry was well-intentioned. In Canada, an extraordinary number of indigenous women have simply disappeared, or have been killed, and it keeps happening. No one seems to know what to do about it.

Thus, the commission’s demand that there be an inquiry. It sounded like a not-unreasonable request. Should we do it?

We shouldn’t, for these three reasons.

First, the murders and disappearances of these women are crimes. They deserve to be investigated as such. Police agencies, in every region of this country, should be given the resources — and the motivation — to investigate and aggressively prosecute every one of those crimes. That is what we do, generally, when the victim is white.

Those women — those victims — deserve justice, in the form of the successful prosecution of the men who did them harm. Justice is not obtained with the release of a report by a retired judge who has the power only to issue reports.

Second, judicial inquiries and commissions have a tendency to interfere with the work the police do. They either delay investigations and prosecutions, or they trample on the constitutional rights of individuals.

That is what happened with the Gomery Commission, where the self-described “Westmount hobby farmer” wildly exceeded his mandate and his budget — and seemed to be much more interested in flattering newspaper profiles than in obtaining the truth.

In the end, after the expenditure of $200-million on the Gomery farce, the reputations of many innocent political people had been muddied. But then the Federal Court of Canada overturned many of Gomery’s judicial smears of prominent Liberals, for showing bias or lack of procedural fairness.

Even now, so many years later, not a single elected person — not one — has ever been sent to jail in the sponsorship mess. Just some ad men, and a bureaucrat. Did Gomery’s preening turn before the cameras make it more difficult for the police to do their job? It seems likely.

So, last Fall, when there were again calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, the head of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Clive Weighill, suggested such an inquiry could prevent justice, not assist it. Interviewed during the organization’s annual meeting, Weighill said the Chiefs would not support such a MMAW inquiry. A national inquiry may “shed some light,” he said.

But the Chiefs were opposed to an inquiry because it could impede police investigations and “delay action.”

The concern about constitutional rights isn’t imaginary — the issue has been decided in the highest court in the land, too.

In 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada terminated Ontario’s Patti Starr inquiry, after lawyers argued it was trampling on the rights of the individuals.

The court said that inquiry had become a “substitute police investigation” — and it had therefore violated the Constitution.

Ruled the high court: “The inquiry process cannot be used to circumvent the federally prescribed criminal procedure. It is coercive and quite incompatible with our notion of justice in the investigation of a particular crime and the determination of actual or probable criminal or civil responsibility.”

Third: it’s true that the job of opposition politicians is to oppose. Apart from demanding ministerial resignations, all that is often available to them is the demand for a judicial inquiry.

But they do it too much. They do it too often. It therefore engenders cynicism, and — on those occasions when their wishes are granted — it further denudes the faith of citizens in democratic institutions. They accordingly vote less, and they turn away when important things are happening — such as the astonishing number of aboriginal women who are being murdered or disappeared in this country.

Ask yourself: does the grieving family of any of those women — or, in fact, any loved one in the case of any violent crime — feel that justice is served by a report, unread, and gathering dust on a shelf at the National Archives?

There are instances, of course, where such commissions do some good. That was the case in South Africa, after the collapse of apartheid. That was the case with the McDonald Commission, investigating wrongdoing by the RCMP.

But those are the exceptions. Most of the time, inquiries and commissions serve only to persuade the politicians that they have done something. When, in fact, they haven’t. They have only enriched some lawyers, and left citizens feeling even more powerless than they were before.

I am the father of an aboriginal girl. I do not want to ever contemplate that harm could befall her, or her friends.

But if it did, I would want a thorough police investigation, and a successful prosecution of the man who did wrong.

Not a forgotten report, gathering dust somewhere, and a politician feeling — falsely — that he has actually done something good.



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    Danny says:

    From Thomas King’s ‘The Inconvenient Indian’ : Probably the most embarrassing aspect of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples affair was the speed with which the report was buried. Alive. Perhaps it fell prey to the vagaries of politics. The Mulroney Conservatives had commissioned the study, but the Chretien Liberals were the party in power when the report was tabled. Or perhaps the reason is not to be found in the intrigue of Partisan politics. Perhaps, as Helen explained to me, Royal Commission reports have become the Canadian Alternative to action.

    I don’t think Harper is the neanderthal on aboriginal issues that some think. He did apologize for the residential schools. And he did work up an agreement with AFN to increase funding for aboriginal education by hundreds of millions of dollars.
    These issues are possibly the hardest issues we have to face and deal with as a country. Where to start? How to start?

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      VC says:

      That’s not entirely accurate. The Chretien government addressed RCAP in its ‘Gathering Strength – Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan’ after studying the research and recommendations that the commission put forward. ‘Gathering Strength’ did a lot (not quite enough in my own view) but it’s difficult to conclude that Chretien buried RCAP.

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    Steve T says:

    Great article. You are absolutely right – the murdered women (aboriginal and otherwise) were victims of crimes, and their murderers need to be pursued and prosecuted. Inquiries are simply political vehicles for people to enrich themselves off the victims. Let the police do their job, and prosecute the criminals to the full extent of the law.

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    JH says:

    I agree with fair funding for First Nations, particularly when it comes to the needs of children, as long as it comes with adequate oversight of every taxpayer dollar. And not the kind of oversight that we’ve seen to date with politicians of every race or creed and not the kind we’ve seen so far regards to native funding by the department of Indian Affairs, chiefs & councils etc.
    And I agree with the author about inquiries. How many millions of dollars have been spent and how many trees killed, for inquiry reports that sit on shelves? I wish someone would do a study – not an inquiry, on that and give us a number. Has to be huge.
    The missing women are a police matter and if they require more funding to do it properly. so be it.

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    doconnor says:

    There are a lot of victims who won’t get justice from the justice system because there isn’t enough evidence for a prosecution and they could get some satisfaction from an inquiry.

    On the other hard most of the solutions can already be found in the recommendation of past inquiries.

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      GFMD says:

      Lot of other reasons victims don’t get satisfaction besides lack of evidence, and an important part of an inquiry, building on the past ones, should be to investigate the reasons for that and make recommendations. (In fact, I’m pretty sure one of the reasons the CPC is against an inquiry is because it will say that a lot of authorities have been actively ignoring their responsibilities).

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    Vancouver Is Boring says:

    The Inquiry into the Cornwall sex abuse ring cost $53 million and determined there was no sex abuse ring. Even Dalton McGuinty questioned if that was a reasonable expense to taxpayers.

    If that little investigation of a very small town cost that much it’s reasonable to conclude one for MMIW would cost between $500 million and a billion. Maybe more. The issue has been studied so extensively there are diminishing returns – what could it discover that 40+ previous inquiries on the matter did not?

    At least one NDP MP has said on Twitter “what are you hiding?” in response to CPC refusal to hold inquiry. The suggestion is that the Harper government is colluding with murderers to cover up the killing of Native women. Yeah, it’s political, 100%. They’re using the suffering of aboriginal women as a stunt prop to bash Harper and anyone with one scruple to rub against another would be grossed out by it.

    Finally, there are way, way more missing and murdered indigenous men than women – do they not matter? I get that “men’s rights” is a bad thing around these parts, but it’s hard to not conclude than dead aboriginal men just do not matter to the “activist set” and that’s really uncool.

    Thank you for writing this, you added some insight that has been absent.

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    Al in Cranbrook says:

    Well said! Thank you!

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    cgh says:

    I agree entirely with Warren on this one.
    Justice is what’s needed, not public grandstanding.
    Canada is supposed to be about good governance, not hysterics to score political points.
    And I agree completely with VIB as well.

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    Shakemyhead says:

    Well, some common sense from Warren. He’s absolutely right. Another inquiry would be a total waste and is demanded to actually cover up the answer we already know. The abusers and murderers are mainly Aboriginal men well known to the women. Sinclair wants an inquiry but he also wants less Aboriginal men in jail. How is he going to square that one?

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    hollinm says:

    I fully agree with Warren and that is not often. These are crimes and allowing lawyers, witnesses and judges to grandstand spending millions in the process will do nothing to stop the murdering of aboriginal women. The police need to solve the crimes. An inquiry will never do that.

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    Colin says:

    Wow! Excellent! You put into words what I was feeling so eloquently.

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    Mike Adamson says:

    So what needs to be done in order to get a little justice? I’m assuming that the calls for an inquiry would be zero if the justice system was seen to be doing something about the deaths and disappearances. Am I missing something?

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    davie says:

    The crimes are being investigated and prosecuted now. But a particular group of Canadians is still a target. The outcome of each individual crime is not telling us why this pattern. How do we figure out what the patterns are, and then do something to end these threats to Canadians.
    We moved fast enough when a man was slain at the war memorial. Who are we defending?

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    Ken Wilson says:

    I understand there have been numerous studies that have already been done and these have been put on the shelf. How about some intrepid reporter dig through those studies and re-publish the conclusions and recommendations for all of us to see. Then we can understand what the issues were and probably get a sense why nothing was done. If they are anything like the 100 recommendations from the TRC, we can understand the impossible situation such recommendations put the government in.

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