Commissioners: Tracy Robinson, Dinah Shelton, Rose-Marie Antoine
Petitioners: Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC); Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA); University of Miami Human Rights Clinic (HRC)

State: State of Canada

Topic: Thematic hearing focusing on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in British Columbia, Canada

Over the last 30 years, more than 600 Aboriginal women and girls have been murdered or gone missing in Canada. British Columbia accounts for a higher number of cases (27%) than any other province in Canada. On March 28, 2012 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) addressed this issue for the first time following a petition by Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) and the University of Miami’s Human Rights Clinic. Petitioners claim that the government of Canada has not sufficiently investigated these cases or addressed the systematic discrimination that results in the disproportionate amount of murders and disappearances of indigenous women. The state of Canada, represented by Counsel for the Department of Justice, Heather Watts, was present to address the charges leveled against it.

The hearing was one of several hearings that addressed the theme of discrimination against indigenous women and girls during the 144th session of the IACHR. Speaking for NWAC, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell focused on Canada’s failure to properly investigate and prosecute the murders and disappearances of aboriginal females. In particular, she lamented the lack of representation for indigenous organizations in a recent inquiry established by the provincial government of British Columbia to investigate the failures of law enforcement’s response to the killings by Robert William Pickton in the late 1990s. Pickton’s victims were disproportionately aboriginal women. Responding to these charges, Watts said that Canada is working with NWAC and other organizations to improve police response to missing aboriginal women and girls. She pointed to a team of investigators from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reviewing the files from the “highway of tears”, an area in Northern British Columbia in which as many as up to 43 aboriginal women and girls are said to have been murdered or disappeared since 1969 while hitchhiking. Many of these cases remain unsolved.

Petitioners sought the IACHR’s help in exerting pressure on the government of Canada to take steps to effectively remedy the systemic discrimination leading to violence against aboriginal females. Sharon McIvor of FAFIA called on the Canadian government to act in good faith to address the murders and disappearances through a national inquiry that remedies the discriminatory failure of the criminal justice system to protect aboriginal women, redresses the lack of accountability mechanisms available to natives and addresses the social and economic disadvantages of aboriginal women. McIvor said that the disproportionate numbers of aboriginal women and girls killed was a product of racist and sexist patterns stemming from the patriarchal notions of society imposed by colonialism. According to the petitioners, the practices of European colonists relegated women to subordinate roles and have since dehumanized them and ingrained a discriminatory image of indigenous women as mere sexual objects without a human face. This is exacerbated by the economic and social disadvantage faced by indigenous peoples in general and women in particular, forcing them into dangerous activities such as hitchhiking, prostitution and drug abuse.

Watts concurred with the petitioners that the disproportionate level of violence against aboriginal women was the result of deep and multi-faceted challenges originating with colonial practices, which she said Canada has worked to address. She highlighted ongoing investigations into allegations against police failure to properly investigate cases as well as social progress to address economic and social disadvantages. Line Paré, the Director General for External Relations and Gender Issues in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Development in Northern Canada highlighted several of these programs, such as a family violence program which provides shelters and community-based projects for indigenous women. According to Paré the government continues to work with indigenous communities to develop a national strategy to improve access to education.

Unlike the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), the regional body under which the IACHR was established, does not have a treaty specifically enumerating the rights of indigenous people, as an OAS working group continues to draft a declaration addressing indigenous rights. However, Commissioner Dinah Shelton, who was present at the hearing in her capacity as Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, underscored the seriousness of the issue and the need for redress. The commissioners present raised several questions focusing on the challenges resulting from systemic discrimination against indigenous women and the need for accountability. Presiding Commissioner Tracy Robinsion, Rapporteur on the Rights of Women, requested that the parties submit their responses to the questions in writing. Commissioner Rose-Marie Antoine, who also serves as Rapporteur for Canada accepted the petitioners’ request to visit Canada and report on the plight of indigenous women and girls.