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Ending Violence Against Women is a Societal Issue, Not a Women's Issue

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This week, the Globe and Mail reported that homicide rates in Canada have fallen to the "lowest annual rate in 44 years". While very welcome news, this is juxtapositioned against the recent news of the murder of Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg. Ms. Fontaine's murder grabbed national attention and was followed by the attempted murder of a second young Aboriginal woman in the same city, not long afterwards.

We know that Aboriginal women continue to be victims of homicide and violence at a much higher rate than their non-Aboriginal, female counterparts. In the 2014 RCMP report, Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: a National Operational Overview, evidence is clear that Aboriginal women are significantly overrepresented in the number of homicides involving women. Aboriginal women constitute approximately 4.3 per cent of the female population in Canada. Thirty-two and a half per cent of all homicides are women and, of these, 16 per cent are Aboriginal women. Similarly, the rate of violence against Aboriginal women is significantly higher than violence committed against their non-Aboriginal counterparts.

None of this is new information but it is totally unacceptable in a developed nation like Canada. Statistics Canada's report on Women in Canada has consistently indicated these much higher rates of violence against Aboriginal Women. Aboriginal peoples have been demanding a national inquiry into the number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The RCMP report was one federal government response to this request.

Police recognize the challenges. The RCMP report highlights the need for prevention. Any number of victims is too high; prevention is vital. While police forces and the justice system can play a key role in apprehending the perpetrators and looking at prevention strategies, they cannot solve the underlying causes of violence alone. Social and economic challenges, and the legacy of Canada's treatment of its Aboriginal population, must be understood to begin to find solutions.

Colonization and residential schools were instrumental in upsetting the traditional values, roles and traditions of Aboriginal people. Indian women were often referred to in derogatory language as "squaws" and treated as being sexually available. The federal government policy of sending Aboriginal children to residential schools - often forcibly, has resulted in loss of culture, language and parenting skills. As we know, a number of these children were physically and sexually abused by members of the religious orders entrusted with their care and education. Prejudice and discrimination continues today. As recently as a few weeks ago, I overheard a man call an Aboriginal woman a "squaw".

Growing up, I heard a lot of unkind words about the First Nations women and men seen drinking on the streets of North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Most people did not understand the cultural context or the devastation of the residential schools, colonization, poverty, lack of education, poorer health outcomes, lack of autonomy and equal access to employment. What they witnessed on the streets was divorced from this deeper understanding. It is no wonder that Aboriginal women struggle with self- worth and self- confidence in communities where violence and poverty are common.

Around the world, we watch in horror as women are assaulted, sexually assaulted, kidnapped and used as weapons of war. We condemn the actions, often send money or sign petitions to try to save a woman subjected to what we regard as terrible treatment. All of these are laudable and desirable actions. Yet, at the same time, we may ignore or not see what is happening in our own country.

Now is the time for all Canadians to recognize and to take action to end violence against all women in Canada. Aboriginal women are mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, employees, university graduates and they are valued members of Canadian society. Yes, Aboriginal communities have an important role. They need to be consulted and supported in their aspirations to obtain social and economic parity. Aboriginal leaders, many of whom are men, must also make ending violence a priority for their communities.

Ending violence against all women is a societal issue -- not a women's issue. For every act of violence against women, society pays a price in lost productivity, worse health outcomes, and, lost potential. Respect for all women and equality is essential. We need to put the same energy into denouncing the violence in Canada, as we do abroad. All Canadians can support ending this violence through helping and supporting Aboriginal communities, demanding government action where necessary, and, respecting Aboriginal culture and aspirations to create healthy communities and equal opportunities. Let us start today.

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