Advocates Blast Canadian Probe of Missing Women

By Sadiya Ansari

WeNews correspondent

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fifteen organizations last week intensified their opposition to a government inquiry into missing women in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. In an open letter, detractors said they would instead cooperate with a U.N. probe launched in December.


VANCOUVER (WOMENSENEWS)—Women’s advocates are strengthening their boycott of an inquiry by the British Columbian government into the disappearance of women in Vancouver’s downtown eastside between 1997 and 2002.

They say they will be working with international investigators instead.

“Our organizations will dedicate what limited resources we can offer to working with the United Nations to facilitate their investigations and fact-finding processes in order to ensure that Canada is held internationally accountable,” says an April 10  open letter to the inquiry’s commissioner, Wally Oppal, that is signed by 15 organizations.

The inquiry is charged with examining police inaction during a time when many of the missing women were murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton. Many of Pickton’s victims were Aboriginal.

So far the commission, which began in October of last year, has been gathering evidence. Now it is beginning a second phase to create recommendations for the conduct of police investigations.

Robyn Gervais, the only lawyer representing Aboriginal interests quit last month, saying Aboriginal voices were being marginalized by a deference to police officials. Her position since then has been filled by two lawyers.

Harsha Walia works with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center in Vancouver, one of the groups in the boycott.

‘Police Not Forthcoming’

Walia says the inquiry in Vancouver has been protecting police rather than forcefully examining their conduct. “The police and the authorities have not been forthcoming at all, which negates the point of an inquiry, which is why we are pushing for a U.N. inquiry because we think it will be more independent and more just.”

The Native Women’s Association of Canada, an Ottawa-based advocacy group representing 13 Aboriginal women’s organizations across the country, reports that more than 600 Aboriginal women have gone missing in Canada since 1990. Claudette Dumont-Smith, the group’s executive director, says her organization has brought the broader issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada to the United Nations consistently since 2005.

Canada maintains that it has adequately addressed the issue. The government allocated $10 million for the Department of Justice to spend during the past two years. Funding ended in March. The government spent the bulk on police, court and victim services specializing in Aboriginal communities. Since 2007, the government has spent $1 million on services to support the families of missing and murdered women in western provinces.

This year’s federal government budget did not have any new commitments focused on missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

In December, the Native Women’s Association of Canada along with the Feminist Alliance for International Action, an Ottawa-based group focused on international human rights, announced that the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had initiated an inquiry.

A representative of the U.N. committee has described the inquiry as confidential and has said investigators would seek the Canadian government‘s cooperation.

Women’s rights advocates say they hope a U.N. inquiry will transform a perceived Aboriginal issue into a Canadian issue.

‘Serious Human Rights Issue’

“What I hope for is governments in Canada and for the general public to understand that we have a serious human rights crisis on our hands,” says Shelagh Day, chair of the human rights committee of the Feminist Alliance for International Action. “This requires some serious long-term investment of money, care, respect and attention that it hasn’t gotten yet.”

Day also charges the government with failing to address the severe social disadvantages of Aboriginal women. “Many are living in very harsh conditions. That makes it more difficult for them to escape violence.”

A Department of Justice spokesperson says social issues are addressed through other departments, such as Status of Women Canada, which has directed $1.8 million to the Native Women’s Association of Canada for a three-year project targeting the root causes of violence against Aboriginal women.

Canada is a signatory to CEDAW, a U.N. treaty that requires signing nations to abolish discrimination against women, including the eradication of racial discrimination in the internal affairs of states. The country also has signed an optional protocol that permits a CEDAW committee to conduct an inquiry where grave and systemic violations of the convention are reported. The United States is one of the few nations that has not signed CEDAW.

Dumont-Smith, of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, says she is looking forward to the results of the U.N. inquiry. “I think we will find out that there are gaps in government policies. There is a lot of systemic racism going on supporting the fact that Aboriginal women continue to go missing and are murdered and that the issue is not being addressed in a meaningful manner.”

The Department of Justice responded to these allegations by pointing to a host of funding initiatives by six departments to improve on-reserve living conditions, including physical and mental health care.

One initiative establishes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to recognize the legacy of residential schools that wrenched Aboriginal children from their families. The “stolen children” schools started in the 19th century and the last one closed in 1996.

Aboriginal Groups Warily Watch Canada Brothel Law

By Sadiya Ansari, Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Groups representing Aboriginal women hope the government will have a partial victory in upholding current prostitution laws. They say female sex workers need to be decriminalized, but they will be endangered if the government stops arresting pimps and johns.

VANCOUVER, Canada (WOMENSENEWS)–The Canadian government is appealing a judge’s decision to decriminalize many aspects of prostitution.

As Aboriginal women’s advocates wait for the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal, it’s a time of ambivalence.

While they side with the decriminalizing judge when it comes to the treatment of prostitutes, they agree with the federal government on outlawing pimps and johns, because they often commit violence against sex workers.

“It’s not a question of morality,” said Teresa Edwards, in-house counsel for the Native Women’s Association of Canada, which is based in Ottawa and represents 13 Aboriginal women’s organizations across the country. “It’s a question of safety.”

Aboriginal women are over-represented among sex workers, who are often living in poverty, suffering from addiction and have few other choices. Predatory gangs target these women, says Edwards, when they are as young as 9 years old.

A decision on the federal government’s June 2011 appeal–following the Ontario Superior Court‘s September 2010 decision striking down anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional–is expected early this year from the appeal court in Toronto.

Such rulings are typically published within six months, but the Ontario Court of Appeal has indicated in cases as complex as this one, a ruling may take longer.

Meanwhile in British Columbia, sex workers are trying to launch a constitutional challenge to the prostitution laws. The Supreme Court of Canada will decide on whether the group will be able to initiate a challenge based on arguments presented to the court last week.

Related Activities Illegal

While prostitution is not illegal in Canada, related profits and activities are.

Justice Susan Himel ruled the laws outlawing the keeping of a common bawdy house, communicating for the purposes of prostitution and living off its avails were unconstitutional.

Despite the ruling, these offenses remain illegal during the duration of the appeal.

In Canada, women are more likely to be convicted and incarcerated for prostitution offenses than men. A 2009 government study found 32 percent of women found guilty of prostitution were sent to prison as compared to 9 percent of men found guilty.

Aboriginal women, meanwhile, are suffering skyrocketing incarceration rates. A 2010-2011 federal report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator found that 34 percent of incarcerated women were Aboriginal. Over the last 10 years, the number of incarcerated Aboriginal women increased by 86.4 percent, while the number of Aboriginal men in prison has grown by 25.7 percent.

But advocates say decriminalizing all aspects of prostitution is not a way to reverse this trend. Instead, they say the country should be embracing the Nordic model for addressing prostitution.

Implemented in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, this approach criminalizes buyers and those who profit off the industry while decriminalizing women engaged in prostitution.

“Absolutely you need to decriminalize women in prostitution,” said Janine Benedet, co-counsel of the Intervener Women’s Coalition. “To simply decriminalize and legitimize men’s purchase of women in prostitution goes in exactly the wrong direction if your goal is to protect women.”

The Intervener Women’s Coalition represents seven groups across the country, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centers and Vancouver Rape Relief. Its intervener status–given for the purpose of the appeal process–means the court will hear its perspective because the ruling will directly impact its members.

Many Aboriginal advocates echo arguments about risking women’s safety if all aspects of prostitution were decriminalized.
Safer for Some

Decriminalization might make it safer for some prostitutes as they move into brothels and away from some of the dangers of the open streets.

But Samantha Grey, a member of the Vancouver-based Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, doubts this applies to most Aboriginal women.

She says they face more violence, higher rates of HIV, more drug addiction and would probably be excluded from brothels because they would not meet standard criteria for employment.

Benedet says many of these social problems, including prostitution, are a direct result of Canada’s history of colonialism and persisting government policies applying to Aboriginal women. One prime example is residential schools, which were funded by the government and run by churches, aimed at assimilation. Aboriginal children were taken from their families, isolated from their culture and many suffered through physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Edwards agrees and in particular thinks the legacy of abuse in residential schools has taken a toll on younger generations of Aboriginals whose parents have undergone trauma.

“We are taking a position that the government has an obligation not to confine Aboriginal women to prostitution as their social safety net,” said Benedet, adding that the government needs to acknowledge that prostitution should not be a solution for Aboriginal women to ameliorate poverty, educational disadvantage and addiction.

One group within the Aboriginal community has applauded the decriminalization ruling though.

The Native Youth Sexual Health Network works with indigenous youth across Canada and the United States. In a statement, it said the September 2010 ruling could reduce street-based violence if women have access to indoor working conditions. The statement also said prostitutes may be able to negotiate safer working conditions, such as condom use, with a client or report violence without fear of being arrested.

But Benedet disagrees. “There’s a lot of other reasons those women wouldn’t want to call the police,” she said.

One of those reasons, according to Grey of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, is the fear that the police, themselves, can perpetrate sexual violence on prostitutes.

Sadiya Ansari is a Pakistani-Canadian freelance writer, based in Vancouver.


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