In the wake of last year’s Boston Marathon bombing and a foiled plot to attack a Via Rail train, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told citizens now is not the time to “commit sociology.” Rather than look for the underlying causes of problems like homegrown terrorism, he stressed the power of law enforcement agencies to express the government’s condemnation of violence. While his position was contentious at the time, its efficacy has recently come under fire again, this time from members of Canada’s large Aboriginal community.
After the body of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old indigenous woman, was pulled from the Red River in early August, a vigil was held in Winnipeg in her memory. More than a thousand people gathered at the vigil, renewing calls for a national public inquiry into the cases of nearly 1,200 Aboriginal women and girls who have been reported missing or murdered since 1980. According to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the vigil’s guide, Wab Kinew, directly addressed the Canadian federal government’s refusal to address the alarming pattern. “Is now the time to make that change?” he asked. “Is now the time we say no more stolen sisters? We say that violence against women must stop. And if we go home and do nothing about this it’s a missed opportunity.”
Yet Harper’s response, delivered in a speech at Yukon College, reiterated the stance he took last year on terrorism. He urged Canadians not to understand missing and murdered aboriginal women as a “sociological phenomenon” and instead, to “view it as a crime.”
The problem with this view, explain sociologist Julie Kaye and public policy scholar Daniel Béland in the Toronto Star, is this:
If the prime minister would take the time to consult even the most rudimentary criminology textbook, he would find that crime is a social phenomenon shaped by powerful historical and social forces. Inequality among different populations in society is one of these forces. In Canada, it is a well-established fact that aboriginal peoples, who face much more poverty and unemployment than the national average, are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than other Canadians…
Harper’s downplaying of “the undeniable and well-documented reality that social inequality and violent victimization are closely linked” takes the focus off differences in perception of state power, as Kaye and Béland note. But, they stress, it is necessary for him to “at the very least, consider that aboriginal women do not want their murders to be solved, they want to live.” We must remember,
Violence against aboriginal women is a crime but a crime rooted in a particular social context, a context the prime minister suggests Canadians should disregard. He does so at the expense of the lives and safety of aboriginal women.
Unfortunately, Aboriginal Canadians are not the only minority group with a high victimization rate. To learn more about the “homocide divide” in the United States, see this piece. Also, check out this Citings & Sightings article about press coverage of a study with similar findings.