Victims’ rights for some

Newly appointed Attorney General and Justice Minister Peter MacKay has been talking up victims’ rights quite a bit lately. In fact, Wednesday in Vancouver, MacKay announced his intent to enshrine a victims’ bill of rights in legislation by this fall.

Victims of crime in Canada, MacKay lamented at a media scrum, “very often, sadly, feel that they are re-victimized, or feel that in fact the system is failing and doesn’t meet their needs.”

Peter MacKay (Image c/o Leon Panetta/Wikimedia Commons)

Peter MacKay (Image c/o Leon Panetta/Wikimedia Commons)

Exactly what form the bill of rights will take, or whether it will have any measurable effect on the administration of justice, remains to be seen.

Since garnering a majority in the House of Commons, the federal Conservatives have repeatedly underscored their view that Canada’s justice system seems to esteem the rights of perpetrators more highly than the rights of victims. (Which essentially means, in the federal government’s view, that penalties for crimes haven’t been stiff enough over the past few decades.) Two omnibus crime bills, a slew of mandatory minimum sentences, and changes to pardon rules that have made it much more difficult for offenders to expunge a criminal record, all illustrate the Tories’ attitude toward crime and punishment. And who could forget the prime minister’s tearful encounter with the family of slain Greyhound passenger Tim Mclean in February (just days after U.S. President Obama shed tears over the Newtown school shooting) that precipitated Bill C-54 – legislation designed to keep not criminally responsible (NCR) offenders in custody longer.

Victims are billed as the primary beneficiaries of the shift from rehabilitation to retribution effected by the Tories. But it appears that not all victims are created equal.

According to a study conducted by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, as many as 600 Indigenous women either disappeared, or were murdered, over the past three decades. Many of those abductions and/or murders have never been investigated, much less prosecuted. On Wednesday, the provincial premiers, who convened this week in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. for the annual Council of the Federation meetings, called on the federal government to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered women. The following day, MacKay rebuffed their request.

According to a statement from MacKay spokeswoman Paloma Aguilar, obtained by the Canadian Press, the government “has already taken concrete action, including passing legislation that gives First Nations women on reserves access to emergency protection orders.”

What exactly does that mean?

The following is excerpted from the text of the relevant legislation, Bill C-47, which became law in September 2008:

In situations of family violence, emergency protection orders can be obtained from a designated judge; such orders can require, among other things, that the applicant’s spouse or common-law partner vacate the home for up to 90 days (clauses 21 to 24).

In other words, Indigenous women who are involved with abusive partners, on First Nations reserves, can petition a judge for a 90-day protection order, similar to a restraining order. According to the Harper government, this will help prevent future recurrences of tragedy. But as any reasonably critical thinker will quickly discern, 1) this legislation does nothing to bring about justice for victims and families of victims of crimes that have occurred already, 2) the women themselves must obtain from a judge protection orders that are useless if not effectively enforced, and 3) this bill won’t protect women in most of the situations in which they are most vulnerable: in cities, where a disproportionate number of Indigenous women and girls are involved in street prostitution and/or trafficked into the sex trade; and outside of the domestic setting, where Indigenous women are far more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to be targets of sexual and/or racially motivated violence by (frequently non-Indigenous) men.

For example, two of the most infamous serial killers in Canadian history – Robert “Willie” Pickton of Port Coquitlam, B.C., and John Martin Crawford of Saskatoon, Sk. managed to carry out their criminal activities for years before any official investigation took place.

In rebuffing an investigation of the sort the premiers have endorsed (albeit free from the obligation to cover any of the associated costs, unlike their federal counterparts), MacKay has stressed the Harper regime’s goal of focussing on the prevention of future transgressions, rather than justice for the events of the past. In this respect, the rejection of a federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women seems perplexingly at odds with MacKay’s preoccupation with the rights of victims and their families.