Miss­ing women, evil men: in­quiry must ex­am­ine both

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY BRIAN GIES­BRECHT Brian Gies­brecht is a re­tired judge and a se­nior fel­low at the think-tank Fron­tier Cen­tre for Public Pol­icy.

While the bad guys in the cases of the miss­ing women are un­known, or ghouls like Pick­ton, the bad guys in the over­whelm­ing per­cent­age of cases are prac­ti­cally al­ways their part­ners or fam­ily mem­bers. That is, they are Abo­rig­i­nal men. A com­pre­hen­sive ex­am­i­na­tion of vi­o­lence to Abo­rig­i­nal women will need to fo­cus di­rectly on the be­hav­iour of these men.

There’s tur­moil within the Na­tional In­quiry into Miss­ing and Mur­dered In­dige­nous Women and Girls. It could all be about the breadth of the in­quiry.

Grand Chief Sheila North Wil­son, from north­ern Man­i­toba, has called for the res­ig­na­tion of the in­quiry’s chief com­mis­sioner, Bri­tish Columbia Judge Mar­ion Buller. At least four staff mem­bers have left, and now one of the com­mis­sion­ers has re­signed. De­spite mil­lions of dol­lars al­ready spent, the in­quiry can’t seem to get go­ing, and - in a bizarre twist - is ask­ing for more money from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

What’s go­ing on? There’s no way of know­ing, of course, be­cause it’s an in­ter­nal squab­ble among the Abo­rig­i­nal lead­er­ship elite. But, based on my ad­mit­tedly lim­ited knowl­edge, I’m will­ing to spec­u­late.

The in­quiry has a man­date to look into the deaths of Abo­rig­i­nal women who have gone miss­ing. These cases in­clude women who were bru­tally mur­dered along the High­way of Tears and the ghastly mur­ders by killers like Robert Pick­ton. These cases are tragedies and the fam­i­lies de­serve an­swers. The in­quiry is charged with find­ing an­swers.

So far, so good - there could be no dis­agree­ment about that.

But the in­quiry is also charged with ex­am­in­ing the much big­ger sub­ject of vi­o­lence to Abo­rig­i­nal women. I’m guess­ing this is where the con­flict lies. One fac­tion wants to fo­cus on the miss­ing women only, and the other fac­tion in­sists on dig­ging into the larger and more dif­fi­cult sub­ject of Abo­rig­i­nal women as vic­tims of vi­o­lence.

How big is that prob­lem? It’s sim­ply enor­mous. Abo­rig­i­nal girls are far more likely to be raped by com­mu­nity or fam­ily mem­bers than their non-Abo­rig­i­nal coun­ter­parts. An Abo­rig­i­nal woman is some­thing like 50 times more likely to be beaten or mur­dered than a non-Abo­rig­i­nal woman. It can be said, with­out ex­ag­ger­a­tion, that, in Canada, Abo­rig­i­nal women have lives as fraught with dan­ger as women in the most vi­o­lent coun­tries on the planet.

And that’s where the miss­ing women come from. Sex­u­ally abused, de­nied their child­hoods as lit­tle girls, then beaten and ground down as women, they flee from vi­o­lent and al­co­holic men, and end up on the High­way of Tears. The ones left be­hind come to know their own grim ver­sion of that high­way.

So the re­spon­si­ble fac­tion of the in­quiry is de­ter­mined to shine a spot­light on this mas­sive prob­lem. But why would the other fac­tion not want this done?

The an­swer is as sim­ple as it is dis­turb­ing.

While the bad guys in the cases of the miss­ing women are un­known, or ghouls like Pick­ton, the bad guys in the over­whelm­ing per­cent­age of cases are prac­ti­cally al­ways their part­ners or fam­ily mem­bers. That is, they are Abo­rig­i­nal men. A com­pre­hen­sive ex­am­i­na­tion of vi­o­lence to Abo­rig­i­nal women will need to fo­cus di­rectly on the be­hav­iour of these men. They have phys­i­cally and sex­u­ally as­saulted the women, and they have made the lives of so many women hell on earth.

This doesn’t fit into the blame agenda that the fac­tion rep­re­sent­ing what I call ‘the vic­tim in­dus­try’ wants to see un­fold. They want to blame some­one else for the prob­lem - the po­lice, the gov­ern­ment but not Abo­rig­i­nal men. They even have a name for it: in­sti­tu­tional racism.

But these abu­sive men are re­spon­si­ble for much of the prob­lem - not the po­lice or the gov­ern­ment. As a sit­ting judge, I saw men brought to court daily to an­swer charges of phys­i­cally and sex­u­ally abus­ing girls and women. They typ­i­cally ex­cused their be­hav­iour with a pa­thetic com­bi­na­tion of “I was drink­ing, it was colo­nial­ism, res­i­den­tial school, the ‘60s scoop,” or any other handy ex­cuse they thought might be swal­lowed by a gullible judge.

But I ex­pected these men to say those things. They were try­ing to get a light sen­tence. What I found more dis­turb­ing was that so of­ten com­mu­nity mem­bers, in­clud­ing older women, were quite will­ing to ac­cept those lame ex­cuses. Fright­ened, abused women would be urged to go back to smirking, abu­sive men. They would usu­ally com­ply be­cause they had nowhere else to go. Or an older grand­fa­ther­ly­type who had se­ri­ally sex­u­ally abused lit­tle girls or boys who were re­lated to him would be “healed” and re­turned to the com­mu­nity to abuse again. And the cy­cle con­tin­ued. And it con­tin­ues to­day.

In what should come as a shock to Cana­di­ans, this ex­cus­ing of abu­sive men’s be­hav­iour reaches the high­est lev­els. I was ap­palled to hear the min­is­ter of Abo­rig­i­nal Af­fairs ex­plain that Abo­rig­i­nal men abused be­cause of “colo­nial­ism.” I’m sure this kind of ex­cuse-mak­ing is wel­comed by abusers - but I’m also sure it sent shiv­ers down the spines of those women who will be their next vic­tims.

The pic­ture is cer­tainly not so grim in a grow­ing num­ber of pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ties be­cause they’ve taken own­er­ship of the prob­lem and are deal­ing with it. But, sadly, there re­main far too many Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties where the men in­sist on lock­ing them­selves and their fam­i­lies in a deadly prison of de­pen­dence, al­co­hol, abuse and vi­o­lence. And blam­ing ev­ery­one ex­cept them­selves.

If I’m right that the chief com­mis­sioner is de­ter­mined to have this in­quiry ac­com­plish more than ex­tract as much money as pos­si­ble from the gov­ern­ment in time for the next vic­tim in­dus­try show trial, then I urge her to stick to her guns. But the odds are not stacked in her favour.

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