The federal government is postponing the release of an action plan on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that was expected to land next month.
The report’s release was supposed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls releasing its final report.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett told CBC News more work and consultation needs to take place with Indigenous partners before Ottawa can finalize a formal response to the report’s 231 recommendations.
Although engagement continues via Zoom meetings and conference calls, Bennett said the COVID-19 pandemic has set back the government’s timeline and she can’t say at this time when a plan will be released.
“As hard as we are all working virtually, I think we will not have a plan in June,” Bennett said.
“We know its urgent. We are all impatient. But the kind of engagement that we’ve been able to do, I think, will deliver a quality plan.”
The $92 million federally funded inquiry was tasked with examining the root causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls.
In its final report, released on June 3 of last year, commissioners concluded Indigenous women and girls are the victims of a genocide in a Canada.
The Trudeau government already has responded to some of the inquiry’s main findings, such as calls to overhaul the Indigenous child welfare system, pass legislation to preserve Indigenous languages and eliminate gender discrimination under the Indian Act.
But other key recommendations have not been fulfilled — such as calls to reform the justice system to make it more culturally appropriate, and to transform policing to reduce racism and create national reporting standards.
The inquiry also called for an immediate end to birth alerts — a system used by child welfare agencies to flag a person’s history, which can lead to a baby being apprehended from its mother in the hospital.
The practice is still being used in Manitoba, despite a promise from the provincial government.
Extra time needed to develop a ‘good quality plan’
Although Ottawa is facing pressure to unveil a strategy, Chief Connie Big Eagle of Ocean Man First Nation in Saskatchewan said she does not want to see a rushed response.
“I think it’s still too soon,” said Big Eagle, who is in consultation with the federal government as chair of the Assembly of First Nations Women’s Council.
“Minister Bennett and the federal government need to give themselves the time to put out a good quality action plan.”
Big Eagle said the government must address the core issues that lead to violence against women and girls, such as poverty, education gaps, an overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care, mental health needs and sexual and physical abuse.
She said she personally knows of three Indigenous women who either have been murdered or have disappeared, including her childhood friend Shirley Lonethunder, who is still missing.
Big Eagle said she wants to see First Nations women and the families who’ve lost loved ones consulted on the action plan before it is unveiled.
“It’s impossible to go to every individual, but there needs to be some sort of conversation or through a representative of each [geographical] area to come and convey the concerns, the ideas of that particular group or region,” Big Eagle said.
“If they allow all parties to participate and they give [the action plan] the time and attention that it needs, something good will come out of it.”
Indigenous women accounted for nearly 37 per cent of female homicide victims in 2018, according to Statistics Canada. The figure marks an 11 per cent increase over 2014.
It is still not known how many Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or have gone missing in Canada.
Some estimates have suggested approximately 4,000 Indigenous women have been killed or have disappeared over the past few decades, but the inquiry said a true number may never be known.
For immediate emotional assistance, call 1-844-413-6649. This is a national, toll-free 24/7 crisis call line providing support for anyone who requires emotional assistance related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. You can also access long-term health support services such as mental health counselling and community-based cultural services through Indigenous Services Canada.
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