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Inquiry ‘likely’ into missing aboriginal women

Strahl has held talks with Native Women’s Association of Canada

The federal government is considering a commission of inquiry to investigate disappearances of aboriginal women, a cabinet minister and local MP said Thursday, Nov. 27.

Chuck Strahl, the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and MP for the Pemberton Valley, told a late-afternoon conference call that the government is considering a commission to investigate cases of missing women, “particularly” aboriginals.

He said this in response to a question about a report from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

However, whether Strahl’s Conservative Party remains in power long enough to convene a commission of inquiry remains to be seen. The opposition Liberals have signed an agreement to form a coalition government with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois and vowed to bring the Conservatives down in a confidence vote.

CEDAW has expressed concern that “hundreds of cases involving Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in the past two decades” either haven’t been fully investigated or have not received “priority attention,” with perpetrators walking away unpunished.

Strahl said he met with Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, on Thursday and discussed with her ways to address the issue of missing women.

“We’re going to put together an action plan for violence against women, particularly aboriginal women, who are unfortunately the single biggest group of abused people in the country,” he said.

“Whether that needs to be a formal inquiry on this or not we’ve agreed to work with Ms. Jacobs, and several other departments. I’m not going to launch an inquiry because it would have to come through the Justice Department or a combination of the above.”

Commissions of inquiry, however, don’t need to come through Justice Canada. They may be discussed within the department but they are established through orders-in-council, decisions made by a federal cabinet that are thereafter approved by the Governor-General.

Jacobs, a member of the Iroquois Confederacy of Ontario’s Six Nations council, thinks an inquiry is “highly likely.” She said that if there were 510 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada that would equal 18,000 women among Canada’s white population.

“If there were 18,000 white women missing and murdered, it would be headlines,” she said. “There would be something done immediately.”

The issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada stretches back at least to 1998, when the Vancouver Sun reported that at least 10 women had gone missing from Vancouver’s drug-riddled Downtown Eastside since 1995.

By 2001 that number had climbed to 45 — many of them aboriginal women who were caught up in Vancouver’s sex trade.

The issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women has hit close to home for at least two First Nations communities in the Sea to Sky corridor.

April Lynn Reoch, a status member of the Squamish Nation, was a drug addict living in the Downtown Eastside who went through detox programs five times before she was found dead in 2000.

Her body was found in a fabric bag in the garbage area of a rooming house.

Sherry Irving, meanwhile, was the daughter of Shirley Irving, a member of the Lil’wat Nation, and sister of Mount Currie councilor Chris Irving.

Sherry grew up with her family in Comox but left them in 1991 at age 19, according to a Canadian Press story from 2006.

Her family moved to Ontario in 1991 but her parents later divorced and her mother moved to Mount Currie.

It’s believed that Sherry would visit Mount Currie once a month but never stayed long.

In 1996 she was convicted of prostitution-related offences and had a prostitution charge laid against her in November of that year, but she never appeared in court.

By that time, it’s believed she had disappeared.

Chris Irving, who did not respond to a request for comment, first reported her missing to the Stl’atl’imx Tribal Police, according to the Canadian Press article.

Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert William Pickton has been charged with Irving’s murder, along with those of 25 other women. Though Pickton has been convicted of second-degree murder in the deaths of six women, there are 20 charges still outstanding that he’s not yet been tried for.

Sherry’s father Wayne Irving, who now lives in Comox, would welcome an inquiry into missing women but thinks it comes “a little bit late.”

“It should have been started when it came to the government’s attention there was something happening that wasn’t, right,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it was aboriginal women or any Canadian women, you shouldn’t be separating any different race.”

Jacobs stressed that an inquiry into missing aboriginal women wouldn’t focus on British Columbia alone.

“This is a bigger, broader commitment that we want,” she said. “It’s a national crisis, this is a national inquiry, a national commission that needs to be implemented and taken seriously.”

Though the inquiry has yet to take shape, Jacobs said it would likely focus on policing and what needs to change when investigating cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

“It’s policing that’s the front line,” she said. “There’s also already been inquiries, the Manitoba Justice Inquiry… there’s also the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, that have said, the justice system has failed aboriginal people.

“So if we’re focusing on policing, what needs to change, what needs to be addressed, why aren’t they taking this seriously?”

Strahl said on the conference call that he doesn’t have a timeline for when government action on missing and murdered aboriginal women will happen, given that he only met with Jacobs that morning, but he also said he’s “not convinced” that a commission of inquiry will be necessary.