Harper government rejects another call for an MMIW inquiry, reminding us where its priorities lie

On the eve of National Women’s Day, the Harper government rebuffed—yet again—a call for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

One could speculate at length on the reasons why the government seems so resistant to the idea of calling such an inquiry. But my suspicion is that for the Conservatives—a party that has built a brand around parsimony, and serving “the taxpayers” first—this rejectionist stance owes to a calculated political decision.

In response to a barrage of questions from opposition MPs in the House of Commons yesterday, Justice Minister Peter MacKay touted a list of legislative and judicial initiatives the Conservatives have taken to fight crime. Following a strange temper tantrum that culminated in MacKay’s tossing the roster of his administration’s “tough on crime” achievements onto the Commons floor, the minister’s office responded to inquiries from CBC News by passing along a link to a web page with descriptions of some of the measures.

There is something immediately noteworthy about the items on that page: namely, none of them deals directly with the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women—and, to put it charitably, those that deal indirectly with the issue (like a vaguely described endeavour to combat human trafficking) only address the problem in an abstract manner, without interrogating the circumstances that place many Indigenous women and girls at disproportionate risk.

In accounting for his reticence to launch an inquiry, Harper has raised three main objections: first, that the inquiry would be expensive; second, that it would be overly time-consuming; and third, that inquiries in the past, like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, have yielded recommendations “of limited utility.”

The limited utlity argument is partly moot: the fact that governments past and present have failed to implement the recommendations of past inquiries does not necessarily imply that those recommendations are unworthy of serious consideration, if not action. (Logically speaking, this resembles the case of a patient diagnosed with a chronic, debilitating illness that is treatable, but refuses remedy in favour of infermity, then claims that his visit to the doctor was a waste of time and money.)

Where dollars and cents are concerned, surely there are instances where morality, and the concern for human costs, ought to outweigh financial considerations. And in the grand scheme of government outlays, the financial costs of an inquiry are likely to be negligible. The RCAP cost $60 million over four years in the early 1990s. To add a dose of perspective, last year the Harper government announced $400 million in “support” (read: corporate welfare) for venture capitalists over the next seven years.

The hypothesis of political expediency

Now I return to my hypothesis: that the Harper Conservatives have consistently refused to entertain a public inquiry, in part, because they’ve determined that it is not politically expedient to do so.

The Indigenous constituency in Canada is young and rapidly growing, but still constitutes a relatively minor voting demographic in federal elections. (In addition, some Indigenous people object to voting on principle, because they perceive it to confer unearned legitimacy on a settler-colonial state.) Of the 35 million people in Canada, less than two million are First Nations, Inuit, or Métis, and this population is largely scattered throughout the land. Further, electoral ridings are generally not gerrymandered in such a way as to offer Indigenous peoples in Canada a strong voice within the federal electoral system.

Canada has a long, ignominious and ongoing tradition of bargaining in bad faith (to put it mildly) with First Peoples, but the Harper government has often been acutely antipathetic toward them. Among other transgressions, there has been a host of unilateral changes to the Indian Act, an intensified approach to the termination of Indigenous rights and title, modifications to the Fisheries Act, removal of protections from many navigable rivers and streams, and the refusal to accede to a national public inquiry on the matter discussed in this post. The prime minister and his cohorts will likely have conceded most of the Indigenous vote; thus, between now and 2015, the government’s policy toward First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples will probably consist of persuading non-Indigenous Canadian voters—most of whom are relatively (or severely) uninformed in this area—that the federal government is making reasonable efforts to “reconcile” with “those people,” while (purportedly) prioritizing the interests of taxpayers.
More broadly, the Harper government is astute enough to appreciate that many (most?) Canadians do not approve of its overall policy agenda. Hence, as it campaigns for re-election between now and 2015, its goal must be to retain its die-hard base, while attracting enough undecided voters to garner another electoral mandate. The flip-side of that coin will be continued attacks on the man Harper has identified as his foremost adversary, Justin Trudeau—whose political ascendance has thus far relied on charisma and name recognition rather than substance.

The cold calculus of polling numbers is repugnant at the best of times, but especially in the face of human tragedy. Violent crime rates across Canada have been in decline since the 1970s, but there remains a broad disparity between those classified as Aboriginal and the non-Aboriginal population. Roughly ten per cent of all female homicide victims in Canada between 2000 and 2008 were Aboriginal, even though this demographic comprises three per cent of the female population.

Harper has been quick to capitalize on a number of headline-grabbing calamities—like the 2008 slayings of the children of Allen Schoenborn, and the suicides of Rehteah Parsons in 2013 and Amanda Todd in 2011—to promote aspects of his government’s carceral agenda and accompanying crackdown on “cyber-bullying.” But in his capacity as prime minister, he has yet to meet with the family of a missing or murdered Indigenous woman.

In many ways, the juxtaposition speaks for itself.