Canada: Future uncertain for committee studying violence against indigenous women

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OTTAWA — The future of a special committee studying violence against indigenous women is up in the air due to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plans to prorogue Parliament.

The committee was established by a unanimous all-party vote in the House of Commons in February, with a mandate to hold hearings on the disproportionate number of missing and murdered aboriginal women and propose solutions to address the root causes of the problem.

Some saw its creation as a government compromise in the face of increasing calls for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, calls which have gone unheeded.

When Harper prorogues Parliament, the committee will cease to exist. But it could be reconstituted in the new legislative session with the agreement of the House.

However, the Conservative government won’t say whether they will allow the committee, which met eight times before Parliament’s summer break, to be reconstituted when Parliament returns in the fall.

“We will not speculate on the reconstitution of bills or committees,” said Erica Meekes, a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt. An official in Chief Government Whip John Duncan’s office echoed that comment.

More than 600 indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in the last two decades, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Aboriginal women are seven times more likely to die a violent death than non-aboriginal women in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

Opposition parties and aboriginal groups are calling for the chance to reconstitute the committee so it can continue its study of the issue.

“I think we owe it to the families to do a proper piece of work,” said Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett. “There are substantial concerns that haven’t been even remotely explored yet.”

Bennett introduced the motion in February that led to the committee’s establishment, and she is a vice-chair. She wrote to Valcourt on Aug. 22 urging the government to reconstitute the committee in the new session with the exact same mandate. She said she hasn’t received a response, but believes the committee will be reconstituted.

“I think that the government knows it’s got to do something on this file, and even though it’s not what we had hoped for in a national public inquiry, I think that they will agree to reconstitute the committee,” she said.

The government says it is deeply concerned by the high number of missing and murdered aboriginal women, but has stopped short of calling for a national inquiry. Instead, it says it has taken practical steps to address the issue, including the a family violence prevention program for on-reserve residents, community safety plans and victim services for Aboriginal Peoples.

It also touts new legislation such as the Matrimonial Real Property Act, which it says provides more equitable protection for aboriginal women on reserves.

Even if the committee does return, opposition members are expressing concern that it would be held to its original February reporting deadline. Depending on how late in October Parliament returns, that could leave little time to produce a report of substance.

Bennett has also asked the government to extend the reporting deadline to account for days lost due to prorogation.

In February, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo greeted the committee as a welcome step forward. On Friday, an AFN spokesperson said its work should continue.

The AFN continues to call for a national public inquiry into the matter, and advocate for a national action plan to stop violence against indigenous women and girls. Earlier this summer, provincial and territorial premiers threw their support behind calls for a national inquiry.

NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic Jean Crowder also said the committee should continue its work. “It does give us an opportunity to continue to have a lens on it, and to continue to pressure the Conservatives to take some action,” she said.

However, she and Bennett both expressed concerns about the direction the committee has taken. It has heard from mostly government or organizational witnesses so far, rather than hearing perspectives from families and communities. That’s the work they are hoping to do this fall.

“Part of the challenge has been is that we didn’t have a clear sense of what the Conservatives were willing to commit to,” Crowder said. “We didn’t have a clear statement of intent for the committee. Then we didn’t have a work plan.  “That’s not a very effective way to operate.”

SOURCE: Edmonton Journal, September 1st 2013: