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Friday, October 22, 2021

Pamela Palmater: What does the election result mean for Indigenous women and girls?

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TORONTO, ONT — After spending $610 million on a snap election in the middle of a pandemic, we are right back where we started: a Liberal minority government.

According to the count as of this morning, the Conservatives lost two seats, the NDP gained one seat and the Liberals gained one seat. Aside from this $610 million seat won by the Liberals, there won’t be any need to change the décor in the offices on Parliament.

Everything is as it was prior to the election. That may be good for the Liberals, but the status quo is literally killing Indigenous people from ongoing human rights abuses perpetuated by Canada’s laws, policies and practices. So, what does the election result mean for Indigenous reconciliation? It won’t mean anything unless federal parties work together to prioritize ending genocide in Canada.

Just prior to the last election in 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found Canada guilty of both historic and ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples – one that specifically targets Indigenous women and girls.

This should have been treated as the national crisis that it is and emergency measures put in place to address it. Instead, the Liberals took two years to “engage” with Indigenous peoples and have failed to take even interim emergency measures.

It is not like the federal government does not have the capacity to deal with a national emergency, as we saw how relatively quickly they responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with public health measures and social supports costing billions of dollars. The issue always seems to boil down to a lack of political will.

In fairness, the Liberal government did initiate the national inquiry after a decade of the former Conservative government refusing to investigate the thousands of Indigenous women and girls going missing or being murdered.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper responded to a question about the crisis with “it isn’t really high on our radar to be honest.” The Liberals have taken more action than the Conservatives, but that sets a very low bar – one that doesn’t move us past the study stage into concrete action.

The Liberals have had more than two years to act on the findings of the national inquiry, but instead delay action in favour of endless consultations. The Liberal platform this time around committed to accelerating work on the Federal Pathway and joint National Action Plan.

However, neither of those documents represent a plan of action to urgently end genocide, but instead reads more like a roll-up of federal programs and services already available. There is a clear lack of understanding about the national work needed to transition out of a well-ingrained state system that perpetuates genocide.

Similarly, the Liberals plan to set up a tri-partite table to work on the issue, but don’t seem to include First Nations government or Indigenous women leaders at that table.

Given the lack of focus on addressing this crisis during their previous term or during the election campaign, there are legitimate concerns that addressing genocide may not be a priority in their first 100 days either.

What the Liberal minority government needs to do now is work with the other parties to make addressing historic genocide and ongoing genocide a priority using Bill C-15 and the implementation of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a guide. UNDRIP, together with the suite of other international human rights declarations, covenant and treaties to which Canada is bound, provides the necessary human rights framework to map out a multifaceted plan that centres Indigenous women’s health, safety and well-being.

There are relatively simple things that this minority government can do in partnership with the other parties, including: end sex discrimination against First Nation women and children in the Indian Act, restore their membership in their home First Nations and make reparations to them for decades of discrimination and exclusion.

The federal government could make the decision to stop fighting First Nations children in foster care in court, comply with the orders of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to end racial discrimination in services, and compensate them for the harms done to them when they were removed from their families.

They could make the choice to stop litigating against St. Anne’s residential school survivors in court; finally hand over all documents related to the abuses in those schools, and support First Nations in locating their missing children. These decisions could all be made within the first 100 days.

There is obviously much more that needs to be done on an urgent short-term basis, like provide for the immediate safety of Indigenous women and safety from violence coming from all levels of government, the extractive industry, policing and corrections and even some segments of society.

While the short-term plan should focus on safety, it is important to remember that safety includes decarceration, and access to safe housing, clean water, and quality health care.

If we do not root out the systemic racism and misogyny in our own society and government institutions, we will not be able to end violence against Indigenous women and girls that has its roots in colonial oppression and dispossession of our lands, resources, cultures and identities that support our self-determination.

The main parties all made promises to work towards these goals (at least to some extent). Now let’s see them all work together to put it into action.

Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer specializing in Indigenous and human rights law. She is the chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University.

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