grim picture of indifference

Tue, October 5, 2004

By -- For the Edmonton Sun

Amnesty International dragged a part of our shameful past back into the limelight yesterday, reminding the world how shabbily Canada has treated its aboriginals, especially native women.

Federal and provincial governments have failed to reduce the marginalization of aboriginal women and the police have often failed to protect them, the human rights organization charges.

"All women have the right to live in safety and dignity but overt cultural prejudice and official indifference have put the indigenous women of Canada in harm's way," says Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International.

The report, part of a global campaign to stop violence against women, tells the stories of native women and girls who have gone missing or been killed in Vancouver, Prince Albert, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg.

"It's excellent," says Muriel Stanley Venne, president of the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women, of the paper. "This substantiates all that we've been saying."

Aboriginal populations throughout the world have had tremendous difficulties adjusting to modern society and native women suffer the most, as have poor women everywhere.

If any country should encourage and nurture a critical mass of aboriginal excellence, it should be wealthy, proudly multicultural Canada.

There are lots of native success stories and, as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats. But there are still so comparatively few positive aboriginal role models that such achievements are often overshadowed by the poverty, dysfunction and hopelessness that permeate many native communities.

The Amnesty International report paints a grim picture of our indifference to some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Many native women are missing, others have been murdered and Canadian officials are not doing enough to stop the violence, the group warns.

"Faced with apparent indifference to the welfare and safety of indigenous women, the families and non-governmental organizations working on their behalf have been obliged to launch their own campaigns to bring the issue before the police, media and government officials."

In 1996, the report points out, a government study found that female treaty Indians between 25 and 44 were five times more likely than all other women of the same age to die violently.

Moreover, the average annual income of native women with treaty status living off-reserve, according to the 1996 census, was $5,500 less than that of non-native women and far less than was needed to meet basic needs, Amnesty International notes.

"The difficult struggle to get by is compounded by sexist stereotypes and racist attitudes toward indigenous women and girls and general indifference to their welfare and safety," it says.

Many impoverished, messed-up native women resort to prostitution to pay the bills or feed their drug habits, the report adds. And once in the sex trade, they risk being preyed upon by woman-haters looking for easy targets.

Amnesty International recommends that police forces work with native communities to ensure effective police response to reports of missing native women.

It also wants long-term funding for services such as shelters and counselling for women escaping violence, and more native police officers.

Quoting the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Amnesty International observes that native social problems are largely "a legacy of history."

But government can't solve all the aboriginal problems - even if official policy caused them.

Successful aboriginals have told me repeatedly that the native community has to get over its obsession with past cruelties in order to heal and join mainstream society.

A young native doctor told me recently that the keys to his success were parental support, an emphasis on education and moving away from his reserve.

"You are more than your ethnicity," he said. Wise words.