Canim Lake Band health administrator Sheila Dick is still concerned about the significant barriers for reviewing cases and implementing actions for Indigenous women.
Dick says she sees first-hand the systemic societal issues that create, or even preclude, investigations when First Nations and other indigenous women across Canada are still frightened – often rightfully so – of police and authorities.
Inquiry commissioners must have the compassion and experience to realize and take this into account – and the ability to work around it, she explains.
“You are of the impression that, if you are a victim and you come forward and you share that information about the police, the police are going to come for you.
“So, how are you going to make it safe…?
“Many things have happened to our people in the justice system, where a rape case will get thrown out of court for technicalities, so at some point, we are going to say ‘why bother, I’m not going to tell you anything’ because nothing is going to come of it anyway.”
The First Nations health administrator says she believes this is a “huge barrier.”
Dick notes she has worked directly with at least one young girl who gave up reporting abuse because she would not be believed.
Until indigenous women see clear evidence that investigators will be unbiased when asking them about horrific past experiences, or families about their loss of a beloved daughter, sister or mother, queries will continue to be unanswered, she explains.
Before having much assurance of an inquiry’s success, the local health administrator says she also wants to see more equity for missing and murdered women in British Columbia, particularly in rural and remote areas.
“They did two [‘pre-inquiry engagements’] in B.C. – one in Prince George and one in Vancouver – and did two in Alberta, two in Saskatchewan, one in Manitoba, five in Ontario – two of them in Ottawa – … and two in Quebec.”
The others were in Nova Scotia (one), the Northwest Territories (one), the Yukon (one) and in Nunavut (one), she notes.
“Yet from what I gather, most of the missing and murdered women cases happened in B.C., so why did they not at least have three in B.C.?
That doesn’t put much emphasis – or give her much confidence – in what government is saying it will accomplish with this inquiry, she explains.
Dick adds most of these “inquiry engagements” also happen in cities, where a lot of indigenous women do go missing, but many others go missing in smaller communities, or had left families behind to go to cities.
“Especially in B.C., so I think there has to be some focus [on our rural communities] … how are you going to have a cross-section [of inquiry engagements] if you do it only in cities?”
However, Dick says she sees more positive strength in the inquiry through the assignment of commissioners who have a “wealth of experience” dealing with Indigenous and human rights and legal counsel. In addition, Commissioners have ties with their Indigenous roots and language.
“We really have to ensure somehow that the really remote communities have a voice. I know of [First Nations] communities that are only accessed by plane.”
Investigations into crimes against indigenous women are already too “compartmentalized” and rural and remote communities rarely have a voice to governmental changes, she says.
Dick also stresses the importance of following through on government’s previous pledge to involve an advisory council in this inquiry, and possibly an oversight committee, she notes.
“I support that because there should be people at the table somewhere holding the commissioners … to task.”
The inquiry needs to have an established timeline and milestone goals with continuous evaluation throughout this processes, she says.
Dick summarized by saying it must be “action oriented – not just words” in order to help give the victims’ families have confidence in sharing the most private parts of their tragic stories.
“When I tell you my story, I need to know something is coming of my pain.”
In her own personal tragedies, she has witnessed domestic violence as a child, as well as also how all the girls in Indian Residential Schools were seen as “…the very lowest of the low.”
Dick says it “looks good” on paper at first glance, but what she is looking for is how the criminal justice system will address the historic inequities and racism in dealing with these stories of loss and murder.
“We’ve all seen in the media on how indigenous women have been violated by RCMP officers … how are you going to get past those barriers to address the disparities?
There needs to be clear evidence that this inquiry is being done in a “good and honest way,” she explains.
Dick is concerned that some past documentaries she has seen aired on missing and murdered women, such as on the Pickton murders, have wrongly slanted public opinion about all missing and murdered women.
“It is propagating a false assumption that all the victims are prostitutes, and it’s not true.
“We are talking about university students, we are talking about mothers who are very poor so they are having to hitchhike – they are not prostitutes.”
The stereotyping … must be addressed somehow, as well as the historic racism, colonization (residential schools) and Canada’s patriarchal structure before any real change will occur.
Dick explains she believes many years ago a lot of recommendations in the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples made on these issues were never carried through.
“They need to go back and take some of those recommendations and run it side-by-side with this inquiry [if possible].”
Dick says she’d also like to see more education of young Canadians of the true history of Indigenous People for a wide-spread, better understanding of 200 years of oppression and racism.