How government inaction on MMIWG could harm Indigenous women

The federal government says it will be late delivering a MMIWG action plan due to COVID-19. Advocates say the pandemic has only emphasized the need for action
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Jun 03, 2020
Lorraine Whitman is the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, a non-profit organization. (facebook.com/NWAC.AFAC)

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OTTAWA — On May 26, the Canadian government said that, due to COVID-19, it would not meet its June target for the release of an action plan based on the final report from the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The announcement, which arrived a week before today’s one-year anniversary of the 1,200-page document’s publication, has since been met with sharp criticism: Indigenous leaders and advocates have suggested that the global pandemic only emphasizes the need for a plan to address violence against Indigenous women and girls. 

"They're using the pandemic as an excuse. We're in crisis as Indigenous women — the crisis of COVID and the crisis of violence — and they're both inseparable,” says Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, a non-profit organization. As the novel coronavirus persists, Whitman says, Indigenous women in Canada, who are already two and a half times more likely to experience spousal violence, continue to be at heightened risk while isolated at home. “In a perfect world, your home would be a great place to be,” she says. “But this isn't a perfect world.” 

The preliminary results from a series of nationwide consultations with NWAC’s local member offices suggest that one in five Indigenous women surveyed in the country reports having experienced physical violence or psychological abuse over the past three months; many are more concerned about domestic violence than they are about COVID-19. At a news conference this morning, NWAC shared eight “immediate and tangible steps” to address the MMIWG crisis, along with a report card on government follow-up to the final report. "We have not abandoned hope in the federal government,” Whitman told reporters. “We hope that the federal government has not abandoned the Indigenous Women of Canada.”

On the front lines, others are noticing increased signs of violence amid the pandemic as well. Ganǫhkwásrâ Family Assault Support Services, in Six Nations of the Grand River, has seen its crisis-line calls double at a time when physical-distancing measures have created barriers to shelter access, says Sandra Montour, the service provider’s executive director: “I believe that what's happening is women are weighing the risk to leave their home and take their children into a shelter and put them in a congregate-care setting.” Once the community starts opening up again, Montour says, she expects to see a surge in people accessing Indigenous shelter services.

As a result, Montour, who is also the president of Aboriginal Shelters of Ontario, says the extent of shelter use during the pandemic likely isn’t representative of the family violence that is happening. She says that COVID has created an environment of high-risk factors that lead to family and domestic violence: “People are in fear about the pandemic, and people are stressed. There are financial stresses, people have been laid off, there's food insecurities, there's paying bills, there's an increase in alcohol use and drug use.”

The Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, which operates in 34 First Nations communities in Nishnawbe Aski Territory, reports an increase in domestic-violence calls between April and May compared to the same two-month period in 2019. “Until the victim’s shelter and support-service funding from both the federal and provincial governments is received and put into action, the situation for a victim of domestic violence during COVID-19 is not favourable,” says Sergeant Jackie George, adding that police are concerned about delayed court dates in Ontario, which leave victims without closure

While Dawn Lavell Harvard, president of the Ontario Native Women’s Association, says it is critical that an action plan is done right, she and her organization are disappointed with the delay in its release. The pandemic, she says, doesn’t relieve the federal government of its responsibility to take steps for the safety of Indigenous women and families. “Our expectation is that they will continue to honor those commitments while dealing with this delay because of the pandemic.” She notes that ONWA has been engaging with Indigenous women and families across Ontario to create their own report with the intent of delivering it to Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett’s office next week and making it public shortly thereafter.

Marion Buller, chief commissioner for the national inquiry on which the MMIWG report is based, shares Lavell Harvard’s disappointment with the extended wait for an action plan. “What disturbed me as much — or perhaps even more — is that we weren't given any alternatives,” she says. “We weren't, as a country, given work plans to date and work plans for the future. We're just left with, ‘No, it's not going to happen.’” Buller says it’s important to remember that the national inquiry’s 231 calls for justice aren't just recommendations. “These are legal imperatives. These are, by international laws and norms, things that all levels of government must do to stop the genocide. So these aren't suggestions that can be ignored.”

A spokesperson from Bennett’s office told TVO.org via email that “we are working to end this ongoing national tragedy and continue to do what is right and necessary to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ and Two-Spirit people to foster the healing of families, survivors and First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.” 

The statement notes a number of recent investments in Indigenous services. On May 29, the federal government announced additional funding for health, economic, and social support for Indigenous peoples and communities, including $44 million over five years to build 12 new shelters. “I think it’s good they're doing that, but I also think that it would be beneficial for them to add more resources to current shelters that are severely under-resourced,” says Montour, who would like to see an action plan that provides Indigenous shelters with resources for community educators, counsellors, mental-health workers, cooks, outreach workers, sexual-assault counsellors, and transitional-support workers. 

Following the federal announcement, on June 1, the first day of National Indigenous History Month, the Ontario government introduced a new Indigenous Women’s Advisory Council to provide culturally relevant advice on violence prevention. It will focus on issues including human trafficking; child, youth, and family healing and well-being; and Ontario’s response to the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Looking ahead, Lavell Harvard emphasizes that an effective action plan will see continued involvement from multiple levels of government and require a “cross-ministerial approach” to end violence. “An action plan has to incorporate changes and actions and commitments from housing, from economic development, from education, from health care, from community and social services, from all of those various levels of government federally and provincially and at the First Nations and community municipal level in order to actually make systemic changes,” she says. “Too long in history, we have seen this belief that Indigenous people are the responsibility of the federal government — and that's just not going to work anymore.”

To learn more about MMIWG and read the final report, visit the national inquiry’s website

If you are in crisis, you can call the Hope for Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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