Inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls would be wise to review social-assistance policies

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      Today, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced the first phase of a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

      For the next two months, Wilson-Raybould, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu will meet with the victims' families, national aboriginal organizations, and front-line service workers before naming who will oversee the commission of inquiry.

      One of the most important jobs will be setting the terms of reference.

      B.C.'s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which was overseen by former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal, was hampered by an excessively narrow mandate.

      He could only inquire into and make findings of fact in the following areas:

      • conduct of investigations between January 23, 1997, and February 5, 2002, when Robert William Pickton was finally charged with murder.

      • the decision of the criminal justice branch to enter a stay of proceedings on several charges, including attempted murder, laid against Pickton, on January 27, 1998.

      • recommend changes to the initiation and conduct of investigation of missing women and suspected multiple homicides.

      • recommend changes regarding homicide investigations involving more than one law-enforcement organization.

      If Wilson-Raybould sets broader terms for the national inquiry, it could investigate the role of on-reserve social-assistance policies in forcing women to move to cities.

      As things stand now, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada provides social assistance on-reserve at the same levels offered by the provinces off reserves.

      This means that if a provincial government slashes welfare rates, those rates are also cut to on-reserve recipients.

      This became an issue after the federal Liberal government eliminated national welfare standards by scrapping the Canada Assistance Plan in 1995.

      That was followed by a race to the bottom among different provinces, notably Alberta and B.C., in gutting benefits.

      With employment rates usually far lower on-reserve, this likely elevated the possibility of indigenous women moving to cities in the hope of generating higher incomes.

      This, in turn, might have left some more vulnerable to a predator like Robert Pickton.

      Oppal's mandate didn't allow him to explore this area. That's because his terms of reference focused mostly on police investigations—not social policies that might have been contributing factors behind women going missing.

      Wilson-Raybould has a chance to order a far more informative inquiry.

      However, if she goes down this road, it also could shine a light on a former Liberal government's policy decision that could have played a role in pushing some First Nations women to leave their reserves and move far away from loved ones.