As preliminary meetings paving the way for a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women wrapped up in Canada, officials admitted that the problem surpasses the 1,200-person estimate by national police.
Moreover, the scope of the tragedy extends far beyond numbers and statistics, Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett told reporters on February 15.
“The families believe that the number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is higher than 1,200,” Bennett’s office told The Globe and Mail.
"It is bigger than 1,200,'' she told reporters in Ottawa, according to the Canadian Press. "Way bigger than 1,200.''
In remarks after traveling across Canada to meet with families and advocates, Bennett indicated that mere numbers cannot describe the breadth of suffering and the atmosphere in which the violence occurs.
"When we talk about families, we haven't been focused on the people who know it could have been them, it was almost them, people who ran away from the [Robert] Pickton farm, people who woke up after being strangled,'' she told the Canadian Press, referring to the serial killer who was found guilty of some of the murders in British Columbia.
The number, arrived at by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in a 2013 report that was later updated and augmented with about 30 more victims, also does not take into account the deaths that were not classified as homicides, or those whose families never even called police out of mistrust, Native Women’s Association of Canada President Dawn Lavell-Harvard told The Globe and Mail.
It’s not just families pressuring the Canadian government to go deeper. Six United Nations experts who met earlier this month with the three ministers charged with designing the inquiry said the country must “fully address the root causes of the extreme violence and discrimination against indigenous women and girls in the country,” according to a statement from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR).
“Challenges which include gaps and weaknesses in the monitoring and implementation of the human rights of Indigenous Peoples contribute to a culture of impunity and render the violations of rights invisible to international and national policy makers and legislators,” said U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli Corpuz, one of the six experts, in the OHCHR statement.
She was joined by Dubravka Šimonovi?, U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; Leilani Farha, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing; James Cavallaro, Chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; Barbara Bailey, Vice-Chair of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and one of the Committee’s designated members who conducted CEDAW’s Canada Inquiry, and Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, CEDAW member and chairperson of the its Working Group on Inquiries.
The problem also needs to be addressed from the standpoint of women in general, noted Šimonovi? in the statement.
“It is my hope that the national inquiry will shed light on the magnitude, nature and context of violence experienced by indigenous women and girls and that its recommendations will accelerate progress and action to protect and prevent the violence they have suffered in all its forms,” she said. “The unacceptable cycle of violence and impunity needs to be broken, and appropriate redress has to be provided.”
On the upside, if done correctly and taken to its logical conclusion, the experts said, such an inquiry could “lead to a new approach toward indigenous women in Canada, and the inquiry could stand as a model human rights procedure internationally.”