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How Government Should Treat Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women

03/26/2013 05:27 EDT | Updated 05/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Tuesday night the Special Committee On Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls will meet for the first time. This special committee, created by the Liberal motion unanimously passed on February 19, will have the mandate to conduct hearings on the critical matter of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada and to propose solutions to address the root causes of violence against Indigenous women across the country.

Liberals still believe that a full national public inquiry will be required, but the work of this special committee will be an important step in finally providing some justice for the victims and healing for the families as well as recommendations to stop this terrible tragedy.

I felt it was important to convey how the Liberal Party of Canada expects this committee will work, both to my fellow committee members and the public right at the beginning of our deliberations. Please find below the text of a letter I have sent to all members of the special committee about the appropriate scope of the study and the need for a culturally sensitive and respectful process. This is a historic opportunity to show the best of Parliament and we can not let the victims or their families down.

Dear Members of the Special Committee On Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,

I am writing you in your capacity as a fellow member of the Special Parliamentary Committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. I'd like to share with you some feedback and suggestions our office has received regarding the appropriate scope of the study and the need for a culturally sensitive and respectful process for the crucial work we are about to undertake together.

There have been concerns raised by many that this committee could be hijacked by political agendas rather than providing meaningful recommendations for ending the disproportionate level of violence experienced by Aboriginal women and girls, as was the case with the 2009-2011 study of the issue by the House of Commons Committee on the Status of Women.

That committee began with a broad mandate to gain a better understanding of the extent and nature of the violence, examine the root causes of the violence, and to recommend solutions in consultation and with the full cooperation of aboriginal women. Unfortunately by the time the final report was released, after the 2011 election, the scope of the study was severely narrowed from the interim report and focused on highlighting limited government initiatives already underway. We must acknowledge that many of the 150 witnesses who provided evidence felt very let down and are still upset.

I believe that we can put those concerns to rest right from our very first meeting Tuesday night. Unlike previous committee work done on this issue, our study must reflect the unanimous will of the House of Commons as expressed in the motion creating this committee. That motion set a mandate to not only conduct hearings on the critical matter of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, but to propose solutions to address the root causes of violence against Indigenous women across the country.

The number of Indigenous women and girls who have suffered violence, gone missing, or been murdered over the past three decades is truly appalling. This committee must work collaboratively to provide justice for the victims and healing for the families. This will mean taking the appropriate time at the beginning of the process to design the study well and get it right. We have until February 14, 2014 to conduct the hearings and produce a report. This time frame provides us with the opportunity to conduct these hearings in a creative and culturally sensitive way that can showcase the best of Parliament.

I know that we are all committed to a process that ensures that victims of violence, members of their families or others impacted by this issue, will not be victimized a second time. Evidence may deal with extremely personal and painful events and many may fear reprisal. It will be important for us to create a "safe place" for people who would not feel comfortable telling their stories and sharing their experiences and pain in a public forum.

I look forward to a discussion with the clerk and committee on possible creative solutions, such as in camera testimony when appropriate, to ensure that we can benefit from all relevant evidence while respecting the potential impact on victims. It has also been suggested that some witnesses may be more comfortable in a "talking circle" format. In order to assure cultural sensitivity, as well as safety and support for the witnesses, I propose that we consider engaging an aboriginal elder, or possibly a number of elders, to assist the committee with our work.

We will also need a full discussion about how we can optimize digital resources to help achieve the goal of making this process as open and inclusive as possible. An active and interactive website maintained by the committee will be an essential tool in reaching out to Canadians from coast to coast to coast and ensuring that committee members have the benefit of input from a broad cross section of Canadians about these issues.

It will be important that this website also serve as a comprehensive "library" of past reports and research, including the ongoing inquiry in the Senate Chamber. It will also be essential that the testimony from the Status of Women Committee hearings be available on the website as many of those witnesses have expressed reluctance to appear yet again.

I look forward to working with all of you. I believe that we can do a serious piece of work that will indeed reflect the very best of Parliament. We have been given the responsibility to appropriately honour the memory and the families of the missing and murdered women by making recommendations that will effectively bring to an end to this terrible epidemic.