B.C. has already produced many missing women recommendations, so is there anything new in the national report?
Nearly 100 recommendations for change stemmed from Vancouver’s 2012 missing women inquiry and Prince George’s 2006 Highway of Tears symposium. Does the national report on MMIWG go further than what B.C. has already done?
While some of Monday’s national report into missing and murdered Indigenous women stakes new ground, especially in relation to the federal justice system, many of the recommendations echo ideas from similar inquiries undertaken in B.C. over the past decade.
Nearly half of the more than 200 recommendations produced by the national inquiry stem from a 2012 investigation led by former Justice Wally Oppal, as well as the Highway of Tears symposium in Prince George in 2006, all of which were aimed at improving safety and raising awareness of the terrible plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“I think B.C. has set a precedent in what inquiries are about, and how we’ve already had those recommendations on the go,” said Brenda Wilson, a 25-year advocate in the Highway of Tears issue. “But not a lot of them were implemented because of funding — no one took us seriously back then about why this (action) needed to happen. And now it is on a wider scale across the country.”
Wilson’s sister, Ramona, was one of at least 18 women and girls who disappeared along several northern highways between 1969 and 2006, and she hopes the new recommendations will get more attention now that the entire country is listening.
On Monday, commissioners released the national Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report, after hearing from 1,500 relatives and survivors of violence, and made more than 200 recommendations for change.
They include new ideas such as establishing a national Indigenous and human rights ombudsperson and tribunal, prohibiting putting children into foster care on the basis of poverty or cultural bias, and creating a guaranteed annual livable income for all Canadians.
Also included are suggestions to change the justice system, such as revising the Criminal Code to prevent offenders from minimizing their culpability, improving access to rehabilitation and reintegration programs in federal prisons, and increasing Indigenous representation in Canadian courts.
The national report also recommended creating affordable transit to remote communities to reduce dependence on hitchhiking, something that both Oppal and the Highway of Tears report had already established as a priority.
Funding for such transit service was a long time in coming, and Wilson said the bus service now connecting communities along Highway 16 is well-used by residents, but needs to be expanded to improve safety, in part because there is no cellphone service along many sections of the route.
“The bus service needs a lot of work,” she said.
Other recommendations from the national report that echo what have already been called for in B.C. include:
• National: Developing a response to human-trafficking cases and sexual exploitation and violence, including in the sex industry.
• B.C.: Oppal called on the province to consider better protection for exploited women by seeking input from sex workers, community organizations, Indigenous women’s groups, police and prosecutors.
• National: Provide long-term funding for education programs and awareness campaigns related to violence prevention.
• B.C.: Violence prevention was a main focus of the Highway of Tears report, which called for changes that would reduce risky behaviour such as hitchhiking, address poverty and other root causes, and create community crisis response teams. In his report, Oppal called for extra training for police to make prevention of violence against Aboriginal women a top priority.
• National: Fund policing in Indigenous communities so services are equitable with those in non-Indigenous communities.
• B.C.: Oppal wrote that his provincial inquiry could not make recommendations directed at the RCMP, a national police force, but he urged the province to conduct audits of all police forces in B.C. “with a focus on the police duty to protect marginalized and Aboriginal women from violence.”
The Highway of Tears report also called for more law-enforcement funding, to increase police patrols along Highway 16 during hitchhiking season, and create a “First Nations Advocate” to bridge the communication gap between officers and the families of Indigenous victims.
• National: Ensure equitable access to employment, housing, education, safety, and health care.
• B.C.: The Highway of Tears report called for more essential health and social services in remote First Nation communities. Oppal wrote that “grossly inadequate housing,” health inequities and extreme poverty were major factors in women’s vulnerability to violence, but stopped short of making recommendations around these social issues.
Seven years after the release of his report, Oppal is proud of what it has accomplished, but is also disappointed that women are still at risk.
“It’s somewhat disappointing that some of what we recommended, particularly when it comes to the treatment of Aboriginal victims of violence, are issues that we are still talking about,” he said Monday.
While victims’ families have argued that B.C.’s response to Oppal’s recommendations has been slow and spotty, the province said earlier this year it had made “significant progress” since 2012 and would continue to take action to improve safety.
On Monday, Premier John Horgan said he was committed to ending violence against Indigenous women and promised to review the national report’s recommendations in the context of “the work currently underway in B.C.”
A few of Oppal’s recommendations remain unfulfilled, such as a call for a regional police force across Metro Vancouver, as well as efforts to “clean up” the Downtown Eastside to better safeguard women.
“I don’t know if much has changed down there. That’s still a breeding ground for violent offenders,” Oppal said.
— with files from Canadian Press