Human rights investigations highlight Canada’s failure to meaningfully address violence against Indigenous women and girls

By Jackie Hansen and Craig Benjamin

Today, a UN expert committee—the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) — released a strongly worded report stating that Canada was responsible for “grave violations” of human rights due its “protracted failure” to do enough to prevent violence against Indigenous women and girls.


The CEDAW report sets out 38 recommendations to address the marginalization and impoverishment putting Indigenous women at risk, ensuring effective and unbiased police responses, and proper support for affected families and communities. The Committee also called for an independent national inquiry and a comprehensive, coordinated national action plan.

Under international law, governments that fail to take all reasonable measures to prevent violence against women must bear some of the responsibility for the harm and suffering that results.

The CEDAW report marks the second time in two months that Canada’s failure to respond adequately to the staggeringly high rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls has been sharply criticized by an international human rights body.


In January 2015, a report released by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights acknowledged a number of initiatives already taken by the federal government and the province, but stated that such measures will not end the violence “unless the underlying factors of discrimination that originate and exacerbate the violence are also comprehensively addressed.” It urged governments in Canada to deal with “the persistence of longstanding social and economic marginalization through effective measures to combat poverty, improve education and employment, guarantee adequate housing and address the disproportionate application of criminal law against indigenous people.” The report called for nothing less than a comprehensive national response to violence against Indigenous women and girls, including an independent public inquiry.

Both reports were the product of investigations launched by these human rights bodies in response to formal complaints brought by the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Feminist Alliance for International Action. Canada was given an opportunity to review and respond to the reports before they were made public.


The reports of these investigations come on the heels of a May 2014 report by UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya, which recommended a “comprehensive, nation-wide inquiry” into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous woman and girls, organized in consultation with Indigenous peoples in order to “provide an opportunity for the voices of the victims’ families to be heard, deepen understanding of the magnitude and systemic dimensions of the issue, and identify best practices that could lead to an adequately coordinated response.”

And this is on top of recommendations made to Canada as part of its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in 2013 and previous missions by the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and on the Right to Housing. The issue has also previously been raised by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and CEDAW.

And add to these the more than 700 recommendations made to government in 58 reports on the issue made in the past 20 years—most of which have been ignored by the federal government.

All these reports highlight the fact that violence against Indigenous women and girls is indeed a sociological problem that requires solutions that are much broader and more comprehensive than a public safety and community policing response.

The United Nations, the regional human rights body for the Western Hemisphere, all provincial and territorial governments, all national aboriginal organizations, major international human rights organizations, and Indigenous communities are all saying that the federal government’s approach is not adequate and that it’s not what is needed.

When will Canada hear the voices of people with lived experience and human rights experts from around the world and take meaningful action to protect the fundamental human rights of Indigenous women and girls to live free from discrimination and violence?

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