Bob McKeon

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

January 11, 2016

Last month Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the establishment of a national inquiry to investigate the disproportionate number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada. This public inquiry had been requested by many across the country. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its Final Report explicitly mentioned such a public inquiry in its Calls to Action.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in two separate statements in recent months called on the federal government to confront "the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women" in Canada.

The ecumenical Federal Election Resource, prepared by the Canadian Council of Churches and several other national ecumenical organizations for the last election, contained a specific question for candidates about supporting a national public inquiry and developing an action plan "to address the urgent crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and children."

The exact numbers are difficult to determine. The RCMP in a report issued in 2014 stated that between 1980 and 2012, police records indicated that 1,181 indigenous women were reported as murdered or missing (164 missing and 1,017 murdered).

Indigenous women are over-represented in these statistics. Indigenous people comprise 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, yet account for 16 per cent of female homicide victims (28 per cent in Alberta). There is a huge impact on families since 87 per cent of the murdered and missing women are mothers.

If this national public inquiry is to be successful, it will need to include the active participation the families of those murdered and missing and also the leaders and members of indigenous organizations.

However, the inquiry will also need to involve the engagement of the wider community, including those in faith communities. While much of the media has focused on this as a national issue, the public inquiry must also see this as a local and regional issue. This is especially true in the Edmonton region.

Regularly, we hear of bodies of women, many indigenous, being discovered in the fields in communities surrounding Edmonton. Last month, a billboard was set up in a downtown neighbourhood requesting information about a woman who disappeared from that neighbourhood 11 years ago.

POLICE TASK FORCE

In 2002, the numbers had increased to the point where the RCMP and the Edmonton City Police established a special task force called Project Kare, which continues its work to this day. Many of the murdered and missing Edmonton women have been involved in the sex trade, located primarily in several inner city neighbourhoods.

At this point, the issue becomes personal for me. I have lived in one of these neighbourhoods for many years. It is challenging and disturbing to me when I read that some of these women were last seen alive a couple of blocks from my home.

It becomes clear that alongside the day-to-day experiences and cultural realities that I and others in my neghbourhood live within, there exists another cultural reality that is violent and deadly for people on the street, especially for women in the sex trade. There is a "social ecology" in my (our) city that has allowed this reality to continue to exist for decades.

MEANINGFUL SOCIAL CHANGE

In recent years, many in local government, community agencies and neighbourhood associations have worked to make a difference. However, the issues are very much still with us. Meaningful social change is urgently needed.

I hope that as the national inquiry gets underway, communities, such as Edmonton, will have an opportunity to contribute to this process by looking at how the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women is experienced locally. I also hope faith communities will take an active role.

Last fall, at Edmonton's Anglican cathedral, there was a month-long display of dozens of red dresses hanging from the walls over the length of the church to draw attention to the importance of this issue.

HUMILIATING INDIFFERENCE

For Catholics, this should be a special concern. Pope Francis, in his Jan 1, 2016 World Day of Peace message, calls for all of us during this Jubilee Year of Mercy to "become more open to those living on the outermost fringes of society - fringes which modern society itself creates and to refuse to fall into a humiliating indifference."

Certainly this needs to include the indigenous women and girls at risk in our midst.

(Bob McKeon: rmckeon55@gmail.com)