Breadcrumb trail

Remarks: Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women

Ombudsman Sue O'Sullivan, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
January 30, 2014 7:00 PM
Room 268, La Promenade Building, 151 Sparks, Ottawa, ON

INTRODUCTION

  • Good evening Madame President and members of the Committee.
  • Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the important issue of violence against aboriginal women in Canada.

MANDATE

  • I would like to begin by providing you with a brief overview of our Office's mandate.
  • The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime was created in 2007 to provide a voice for victims at the federal level.
  • We do this by:
    • receiving and reviewing complaints from victims;
    • promoting and facilitating access to federal programs and services for victims of crime by providing information and referrals;
    • promoting the Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime;
    • raising awareness among criminal justice personnel and policy makers about the needs and concerns of victims, and
    • identifying systemic and emerging issues that negatively impact on victims of crime.
  • The Office helps victims in two main ways: individually, and collectively.
    • We help victims individually by speaking with victims everyday, answering their questions and addressing their complaints.
    • We help victims collectively by reviewing important issues and making recommendations to the Federal Government on how to improve its laws, policies or programs, to better support victims of crime.

INTRO

  • I have been invited here today to discuss a very important issue, violence against aboriginal women in Canada.
  • As you all know, violence against Aboriginal women is far more common than amongst the rest of the population.
  • Women are facing violence at alarming rates and, in my opinion, Canada must take swift and decisive action.
  • Today I would like to share with you some of the specific aspects of this issue that our Office has looked at, and the recommendations we have recently shared with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights during their recent visits to Canada.

SUPPORT FOR A NATIONAL COMMISSION OF INQUIRY INTO MISSING AND MURDERED ABORIGINAL WOMEN IN CANADA

  • The first item I would like to discuss the potential of a National Commission of Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women in Canada and the subsequent or concurrent development of a related action plan.
  • To be clear, I support the call for the creation of this commission and action plan.
  • Research shows that simply being an Aboriginal person in Canada significantly increases the likelihood of experiencing violent victimization.
  • In a study where all other factors were held constant, the odds of being the victim of a violent crime is approximately three times higher among Aboriginal people. 1
  • Available statistical evidence further paints a picture of Aboriginal women’s lives being particularly marked by vulnerability to violent victimization, especially domestic and/or sexual violence.
  • The 2009 General Social Survey conducted by Statistics Canada revealed that Aboriginal women are about three times as likely to be victims of violent crime than non-Aboriginal women.
  • Further, 79% of Aboriginal women respondents to the survey stated that they had been victimized by a male, with additional studies showing that on average one quarter to one half of Aboriginal women were victims of sexual abuse as children compared to a 20% to 25% average rate within the non-Aboriginal population. 2
  • However while these statistics are alarming, they are not sufficiently comprehensive.
  • Unfortunately, in Canada, there exists a gap of reliable data on the true scale of violence against aboriginal women.
  • Data contained in the General Social Survey, some of which I have just shared with you, are limited only to certain violent crimes (sexual and physical assault, robbery). The GSS does not capture homicides.
  • Normally, the Homicide Survey would assist in filling in the gaps here, but the Homicide Survey only collects socio-demographic information when it is known – as a result in about half of the cases, the aboriginal identity of a victim is reported by police as unknown. 3
  • Together, our current data collection practices don’t enable us to have a full and clear picture of the scope of the problem.
  • As I’m sure members are aware, the Native Women Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit Initiative did do some work in this area. Their initiative, driven and led by Aboriginal Women, worked to conduct research, and raise awareness of, the alarmingly high rates of violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. 4
  • As part of this, Sisters in Spirit conducted ongoing research that gathered statistical information on violence against Aboriginal women. As of March 2010, the research concluded that there were more than 582 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada, many of which were not formally reported to law enforcement agencies.
  • These figures demonstrate an extreme vulnerability to violence among Aboriginal women and girls and a reluctance to report victimization to police.
  • Beyond the statistics are the reasons behind them and these, in my view, are key to truly understanding the issue in order to effectively address it.
  • We need to look more closely at the factors related to the increased rate of victimization.
  • Where have the systems broken down? What are the root causes and what further supports or resources are necessary to address them? We don’t have the complete answers to these questions yet.
  • This, in combination with our lack of comprehensive data, highlights the need to better understand the causes of this vulnerability as well as the crucial importance of developing informed strategies for prevention and appropriate response.
  • Informed strategies should be ones developed with the Aboriginal community itself. To be effective, any inquiry, plan or strategy developed must defer to the leadership, knowledge and expertise that only Canada’s aboriginal community can provide.
  • While there has recently been a provincial commission of inquiry in British Columbia, the commission focused on missing and murdered women in the province of British Columbia and was not specific to Aboriginal women and girls, nor did it explore the multiple factors that have lead to significant violence against them.
  • Clearly, the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women is not unique to British Columbia, it is a problem national in scope.
  • A national commission of inquiry would allow for the voices of Canada’s Aboriginal women and communities to be heard, respected and considered in processes and structures designed to address their needs.
  • In this way, strategies for preventing and responding to this crisis could be specifically tailored to the needs of Aboriginal women and rooted in understandings of the social and economic conditions that have contributed to their vulnerability.
  • The Government of Canada has an important leadership role to play in preventing and responding to the crisis of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.
  • As such, in my view, the initiation of an inclusive, national commission of inquiry on Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women, with a corresponding commitment to implementing the commission’s recommendations, would be an appropriate and necessary next step.

MISSING PERSONS AND UNIDENTIFIED REMAINS INDEX (MPI)

  • In addition to the creation of a Commission of Inquiry, the creation of an Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Index (MPI) is of importance to the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
  • Currently, unidentified remains fall under the jurisdiction of provincial and territorial coroner’s offices.
  • This means that DNA comparisons are only an option at the respective provincial and territorial level, which prevents DNA comparisons and/ or matches to unidentified remains from occurring across all provinces and territories.
  • At a time where cross-border travel and even trafficking is more and more common, this can prove to be a serious barrier to solving or advancing cases.
  • An MPI would provide the capacity to compare the DNA profiles of missing persons to unidentified remains.
  • This would ultimately strengthen law enforcement’s investigative capacity by providing a tool for this comparison important work not only within a province, but across Canada.
  • Support for an MPI has been shown by the Coordinating Committee of Senior Officials. The Committee, whose establishment was mandated by Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Justice, conducted a review of issues related to the high number of murdered and missing women in Canada.
  • The Committee released its report and recommendations in January 2012 and included within it was the recommendation that “jurisdictions support further consideration of the feasibility and utility of a Missing Persons Index…” 5
  • There has also been considerable support for the creation of a national MPI from the Canadian public, law enforcement, victims groups, parliamentarians, and various levels of government.
  • In the interests of time I will not share the details of this support here now, but I would be more than happy to speak further to it during questions or provide the information as a follow up, should Members wish.
  • As you can imagine, with such strong support from such diverse groups it is difficult for the families and loved ones of missing persons to understand the delays in developing this important index.
  • I have had the opportunity to speak with victims and victim groups who have articulated a sincere and determined hope that the development of a Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains index be given the priority it deserves in order to alleviate the suffering that many families of missing persons face not knowing what may have happened to their loved one.
  • For this reason, my Office has, on numerous occasions, made the recommendation to the Minister of Public Safety that the development of these indices be given a high priority, and that jurisdictional issues be resolved on an urgent basis.
  • To date, legal, privacy, and jurisdictional concerns continue to be cited by the Government of Canada in its response to the Office’s recommendations as the primary impediments to the implementation of an MPI.
  • We understand that cost may also be an issue of concern.

PROVIDING APPROPRIATE VICTIM SERVICES

  • Finally, I would like to briefly mention the importance and duty we have as the Government of Canada to ensure that the programs, services, policies and laws we have in place for victims of crime be sensitive and adaptable to the needs of aboriginal victims.
  • Just recently I had the opportunity to make a series of videos of victims and victim advocates sharing their views and experiences in order to help raise awareness of victim issues.
  • As part of the series, we had the privilege of having Dr. Dawn Harvard, interim President for the Native Women’s Association of Canada, speak about the needs and experiences of aboriginal victims.
  • In the views she shared, Dr. Harvard recounted the story of an elder aboriginal victim who, after seeking assistance and struggling to write out a victim impact statement, was told that the statement was not on the correct form and that she needed to go home and do it again.
  • Dr. Harvard also shared with us the realities of lower literacy levels in smaller communities, and how government services that require Internet access or the completion of complex forms can pose significant accessibility barriers for aboriginal victims.
  • While the majority of victim services in Canada are provided at the Provincial level, I do think it is worth noting the importance of considering these needs when it comes to the service and programs we offer at a federal level.

CONCLUSION

  • In closing, I would like to thank the Committee for its consideration of the above issues and for its work in examining this important issue.
  • As discussed, I support the creation of a National Commission of Inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women as well as a National Missing Persons and Unidentified Human Remains DNA Index and encourage the committee in its work to emphasize the need for the federal government to provide accessible, appropriate services and programs to aboriginal victims of crime.
  • I thank you for your time and welcome any questions you may have.

  1. Brzozowski, Jodi-Anne, Andrea Taylor-Butts, and Sara Johnson (2006) Victimization and Offending among the Aboriginal Population in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. (return to Footnote 1)
  2. Collin-Vézina, Delphine, Jacinthe Dion, and Nico Trocmé (2009) Sexual Abuse in Canadian Aboriginal Communities: A broad review of conflicting evidence. Pimatisiwin: A journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health. 7: 27-48   (return to Footnote 2)
  3. Statistics Canada, Violent victimization of Aboriginal women in the Canadian provinces, Text box 2, 2009. Available at: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2011001/article/11439-eng.htm   (return to Footnote 3)
  4. Native Women’s Association of Canada (2010) “What their Stories Tell us: Sisters In Spirit 2010 Research Findings” Accessed at: http://www.nwac.ca/files/reports/2010_NWAC_SIS_Report_EN.pdf   (return to Footnote 4)
  5. Coordinating Committee Senior Officials (Criminal) Missing Women Working Group (2012) “Report and Recommendations on Issues Related to the High Number of Murdered and Missing Women in Canada.”   (return to Footnote 5)