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Opinion: Inquiry needs feminist perspective

July 13, 2016

In a recent article (“Canada’s missing women inquiry to benefit from B.C. experience, say feds”, Vancouver Sun, July 3), both Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett and former judge Wally Oppal were cautioned about repeating the mistakes of B.C.’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.

Alas, a few crucial flaws of the provincial inquiry have already been repeated in the process leading up to the national inquiry, not least of which is that women’s groups are not central to the process.

At the provincial Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, Oppal granted the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) full standing, stating that “I believe it is critical for NWAC to participate throughout the hearing process. … NWAC is unique in its specific focus on and representation of Aboriginal and First Nations women.” Oppal also granted standing to the Women’s Equality and Security Coalition (WESC), a local group with members like the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network and Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. Oppal noted that “WESC’s participation would further the conduct of the inquiry and contribute to its fairness based on its perspective of advancing equality interests of women and girls.” 

However, the province refused to fund legal representation to anybody except a symbolic representation of “the families”. NWAC and WESC had to withdraw from participating, and Oppal’s willingness to carry on despite their absence meant there was no feminist expertise. No witness or testimony heard at the inquiry offered any feminist analysis, which is crucial to understanding men’s violence against women, including prostitution. For instance, no “expert” who testified at the inquiry spoke about the criminal justice system’s refusal to arrest and charge men who buy, abuse and exploit women in prostitution. On the contrary, the only version Oppal heard was in favour of prostitution despite its devastating impact on women. As a result, none of Oppal’s recommendations called for basic reforms that could protect women from resorting to prostitution, enable women to exit prostitution, and stop men from harming women in prostitution.  

Now, a similar process is happening on the national level. Earlier this year, Bennett held consultations across the country with many invitees, but too often, feminist expertise was not even in the room, let alone in an influential position. The final report of the pre-inquiry engagement process has one recommendation that mentions the “systemic predominance of Indigenous male political leadership at the expense of Indigenous women’s autonomous leadership, including the lack of funding for women’s organizations.” Governmental funding to NWAC has been an ongoing problem, which has a devastating effect on NWAC’s ability to fulfil its role as a national advocate for indigenous women’s equality and liberty. To date, nothing has been done to allow the NWAC, or any other independent indigenous women’s groups to influence, much less shape, the inquiry process. According to the pre-inquiry report, it looks like if NWAC is to have any role in the national inquiry, it will be “supporting the participation of families, survivors and loved ones in the inquiry.” This is not a role that allows any group to offer their feminist analysis or their political leadership.

The absence of a feminist analysis from the consultation is strikingly obvious when reviewing the 70 recommendations of the pre-inquiry engagement process. Not one recommendation names men as responsible for the violence against indigenous women. Ironically, the only recommendation that is explicitly referring to men is about encouraging them to participate in the inquiry. Male violence against women is the crux of the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women and a major force of indigenous women’s oppression. Failing to recognize that casts serious doubts that the upcoming national inquiry will lead to a dramatic improvement in indigenous women’s lives. Unless the federal government takes immediate and serious measures to have feminism at the forefront, it dooms the inquiry, before it has even started, to failure.

The article was published in the Vancouver Sun

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