Missing Indigenous Women Inquiry Lacking Feminism, Advocates Say

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VANCOUVER — A chairwoman of Vancouver's annual memorial march for missing and murdered aboriginal women says she's concerned a national inquiry will leave out a crucial issue — feminism.

Fay Blaney, who co-chairs the February 14th Women's Memorial March Committee said the starting point of an inquiry must be the barriers indigenous women face in Canadian society.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett is touring the country to meet with families, survivors and aboriginal representatives to hear what they want from an inquiry.

Blaney attended an all-day meeting in Vancouver last Wednesday and wants to meet with Bennett to discuss the inquiry's parameters.

fay blaneyBlaney says she's concerned an upcoming inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women will leave out an essential issue - feminism. (Photo: CP)

"It needs to proceed from a feminist perspective. This is an issue of indigenous women's equality," she said. "I didn't hear that coming from them."

Her fears are part of a broader concern among front-line workers and advocacy groups that they are being shut out of the process. Blaney said the consultations appear to be focused on families, and while it's important for them to have a voice, they're only one perspective.

"Each one has a unique story to tell and it's instructive in terms of the data and information that comes from those stories, and it can lead to healing of the families involved," she said.

"But my position is that the women in the Downtown Eastside and other urban centres across this country are estranged from families."

fay blaneyFay Blaney embraces Lisa Yellow-Quill after stopping to talk with her in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday January 14, 2016. (Photo: CP)

Blaney's committee advocates year-round for women in the city's troubled Downtown Eastside and is one of several groups, including Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, that have sent a letter to Bennett asking for a special meeting.

Rape Relief spokeswoman Hilla Kerner said approaching the inquiry using a feminist framework would mean examining the power relationships that have an impact on aboriginal women.

"Aboriginal women are vulnerable to male violence first and foremost because they are women, then because they are aboriginal, and then because they are poor," she said. "The intersection between colonialism and sexism plays a crucial role."

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, is also calling on the government to hold separate meetings with front-line workers and grassroots groups.

"We just want to make sure that there is an opportunity for those meetings with those people who do the work on the ground."

She said she was told before the meetings started that they were for families only.

"We absolutely understand and respect the need for the families to go first," she said. "We just want to make sure that there is an opportunity for those meetings with those people who do the work on the ground."

Sabrina Williams, a spokeswoman for the ministry, said front-line organizations are invited to the meetings, which are scheduled to end in Ottawa on Feb. 15.

She said participants have stressed the need for an inquiry to have an indigenous perspective and address the root causes of violence and the effects of residential schools.

"We are trying to find the balance between people who want us to get on with the inquiry but also the fact that we want to get it right."

Some families have complained that the meetings are being rushed. Williams said every effort was being made to ensure relatives have as much notice as possible to participate.

"We are trying to find the balance between people who want us to get on with the inquiry but also the fact that we want to get it right," she said in a statement.

Candice Stevenson, whose mother went missing 33 years ago, said she only had a week's notice before the Vancouver meeting and she felt like she had to compete for a chance to talk.

"Everybody's rushed, rushed, rushed. People don't get to really speak their minds," she said. 

But she said the government shouldn't wait for the inquiry to take action on missing and murdered women, including increasing police resources to investigate cases.

"We already know what's wrong. The violence against women, the systemic racism — we already know those problems exist."

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

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