Federal budget lacked a plan to combat violence against Indigenous women, advocates say


Advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) say the federal government sidestepped the national inquiry’s finding of genocide in its budget — and they wonder how Ottawa can commit money to ending the violence without a plan.

Two years ago this June, the National Inquiry into MMIWG concluded violence against Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide — a finding the United Nations Human Rights Office urged the government to investigate.

The word “genocide” isn’t mentioned in this year’s budget — the first one to be released since the inquiry’s final report.

Instead, the document describes the violence against Indigenous women and girls as a “national tragedy.”

“It’s a misstep because this is a genocide,” said MMIWG advocate Meggie Cywink.

“Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau said it was a genocide, so with that comes a certain level of responsibility from the government.”

Money welcome, but accountability needed

In its budget, the Liberals promise $2.2 billion over five years and $160.9 million each year after to address the root causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

The money is earmarked for culture revitalization and preservation projects, efforts to tackle racism and discrimination in the health care system, the creation of culturally sensitive policing services, improved access to justice for Indigenous people and supports for families and survivors.

The money is in addition to the $781 million-plus — and more than $106 million each year after that — set aside in the Fall Economic Statement to deal with the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, strengthen community-based justice systems and build new shelters and transition housing for First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

Cywink said the funding is generous but she wants to see the government do more to address violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Meggie Cywink, a long-time advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, wants the federal government to take responsibility for the national inquiry’s finding of genocide. (Supplied by Meggie Cywink)

Twenty-seven-years ago, the body of Cywink’s sister was discovered at an Indigenous historical site known as the Southwold Earthworks, just outside of London, Ontario.

Sonya Nadine Cywink was 31 years old and pregnant at her time of death.

Since then, Cywink has been on a quest to learn what happened to her sister, helping other families of missing and murdered women and girls along the way.

Cywink said she wants to make sure those families are at the centre of any discussions on how the $2.2 billion is spent. 

“Awareness is something that we’ve already done,” she said. “Now, it’s about creating the actions that are really going to stop … the genocide”

Budget informing national action plan

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett did not use the word “genocide” when asked about its absence from the budget. She said the federal government accepted the findings of the inquiry’s final report.

“We have been asked by the families and survivors for decades to put in place the concrete actions where they would seek justice, receive healing [and] support as well as concrete actions to stop this national tragedy. That was their words,” Bennett said.

“We are, I think, faithful to the words of the families, but also to the way forward.”

Bennett said the recent work on the national action plan informed what’s in the budget.

“These investments in the budget are supporting the federal contribution to a national action plan so the dollars in the budget are part of our implementation of that …” Bennett said.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett wouldn’t offer a clear date for releasing the national action plan to address violence against Indigenous women and girls. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Marion Buller, former chief commissioner of the national inquiry, said she wants to see the government do more to acknowledge the finding of genocide.

“Using the term ‘national tragedy’ in the budget to describe MMIWG is an attempt by government to avoid the legal and social reality of genocide,” Buller said.

Addressing the finding of genocide

As for the $2.2 billion pledge, Buller questioned how the government can assign funding to a national action plan that hasn’t been released yet.

“How they can assign a dollar amount to something that hasn’t landed is a bit of an accounting mystery to me,” Buller said.

Buller said she’s been briefed on the national action plan several times but has no say on what happens next.

“What I don’t see in this budget is the paradigm shift that we called for in our Calls for Justice,” Buller said.

“We have to move away from programming and temporary measures and that whole way of thinking … to that paradigm shift of Indigenous people doing for themselves.”

Marion Buller, former chief commissioner of the national inquiry, said the federal government tried to avoid acknowledging the legal and social reality of genocide in the budget. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said he will be watching to see how the government frames its response to the national inquiry’s finding of genocide in the national action plan.

“I recognize the admission of genocide is not an easy thing for any institution or nation state,” Obed said. 

“The opportunity for Canada, I believe, is to hear what Indigenous women and girls have said, and to respond and show that they have heard and take to heart the findings, and will do all that they can to change the reality, and also to uphold human rights for First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls in this country.”

Obed said it’s good the government is linking its funding with the inquiry’s Calls for Justice, which it notes in several of its budget promises, but he wants to see more specifics.

“We want to make sure that this isn’t just status-quo funding that would’ve gone to these areas anyway that is now being repackaged as an investment in the implementation of the Calls for Justice,” he said.

Action plan to be released ‘as soon as it’s ready’

More than 100 Indigenous women, girls and and transgender people are overseeing the plan to address systemic causes of violence against them, said Bennett.

She said urban Indigenous, two-spirit, First Nation, Métis and Inuit specialized groups are creating their own chapters of the action plan, along with the provinces and territories.

Natan Obed, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president, said he will be watching to see how Ottawa frames its response to the national inquiry’s finding of genocide in the national action plan. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Once it’s complete, Bennett said, the action plan will include a way for families and survivors to track its progress and provide feedback.

Bennett wouldn’t commit to a new target date for releasing the plan, but said she’s optimistic about the work. 

“We’ve made extraordinary progress,” Bennett said. “We really look forward to being able to put it together, as soon as it’s ready”

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