Libby speaks in support of special committee on missing and murdered women

House of Commons


February 14, 2013

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, first of all, let me say that I am very pleased to be following the NDP member for Churchill, after her very powerful and passionate speech on this issue. I know that this is an issue that we all care very deeply about.

I want to begin my remarks by reflecting on a very important event that is going to take place in the downtown east side at Main and Hastings today. Today will be the 22nd annual women’s memorial march that is taking place in that community.

I attended the first march in 1991 when I was still a city councillor and it was really the first time that the community came together in an outpouring and recognition of the terrible violence that was taking place in the community where aboriginal women were missing and many were murdered or presumed murdered. Many were sex workers.

I remember the march along Powell Street and we began next to a dumpster where earlier the body parts of a murdered woman had been found. I will not use her name because her family has asked that her name not be used. I remember as we walked down Powell Street, Dundas Street, down to Main and Hastings to the Carnegie Centre. There was a smudge ceremony and her family was there. It was the first time in the downtown east side that there was a public coming together and recognition of what was taking place in that community.

That was in 1991. Many women had been disappearing prior to that. It was at that point that the community started calling for a public inquiry in B.C. into the missing and murdered women because we all knew and believed that there was a serial killer that was likely responsible. Here we are two decades later and of course much has happened. There have been criminal trials, the largest mass murder trial in Canada, the Picton trial. We have had the Oppal Commission. We have had the United Nations begin its own inquiry into the status and the missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Here we are today debating this motion and it is an important step. It looks like the motion would be passed which I think is good, but I want to remember the women in the downtown east side and to thank the organizers for what they are doing today, Marlene George, who is the chair of the committee and many other women who have been involved in this issue. Even though they were grieving for the loss of family members, refused to be silenced and refused to be placated.

What I have learned from this issue is that it is probably the greatest tragedy that we have seen in the downtown east side and the community is still feeling the grief of what has taken place. But I have also learned that the huge systemic issues that are involved are something that we simply cannot ignore. I believe that we all have a responsibility. Primarily governments have a responsibility, but whether it is municipal, provincial or federal, we all have a responsibility to come to terms with what has taken place. In coming to terms, we have to face the grievous injustices facing aboriginal people, especially women, and we have to respond in a way that acknowledges and understands the historic racism, inequality, poverty and discrimination that has resulted from a long history of colonialism in Canada.

Unless we can begin from that place of understanding, I worry and fear that we will not have learned what it is that we need to learn in order to move forward. That is one very important principle to me, the understanding of the root causes.

The second thing is to understand that society has failed these women at every single level, whether it is judicial, political, cultural, no matter what way we look at it, society has failed these women.

These women were marginalized. I am speaking primarily about the downtown east side, but as we know, there are 600 women who are also missing and may be murdered across the country. These women became so marginalized, they became like non-people, and so their disappearances were never taken seriously.

Now we have the reports and the analysis of what went wrong, and still there is some finger-pointing: the RCMP, the Vancouver Police and other police forces in other parts of the country. The second most important thing is to understand how everything failed.

We expect our governments, we expect our society, the programs we have, the values we have as Canadians, to take care of people when they are hurting. Yet in this instance, especially in the downtown east side because most of the women were sex workers, they were just dismissed. It was not taken seriously when they disappeared and when their family members made complaints. We have a lot to learn.

I attended the Oppal Commission when it released its report on December 17, not very long ago. Although there were many criticisms about the Oppal Commission process, the inquiry and the fact that many community organizations did not have the legal standing and resources they needed to participate in the inquiry, nevertheless, that report is there. It compels all of us to ensure that these recommendations are followed up.

When I spoke to Justice Oppal before the commission actually began its formal work, I said to him and what I still believe today is that the most important aspect of his work was a way to ensure that whatever recommendations he came up with would not be forgotten, that they would not just sit somewhere. We have seen that with many reports, unfortunately. We could go back to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996. It was a three volume document. Most of those recommendations have never been followed up.

I say today that if we have the unanimous will of the House, and it looks like we do and that is good, to set up a special committee, then we have to make a commitment to the community, to those families, that we will actually make it meaningful and that it will not be a special committee that does the routine stuff, that it will actually be a process that will look at the other reports and recommendations.

We heard the parliamentary secretary say earlier that she believes the Oppal Commission recommendations should be looked at as they pertain to the federal government. That is certainly very important, but we have to make a commitment that we are willing to look at real outcomes in terms of the judicial system, in terms of poverty, income inequality, racism, discrimination, the standing of women in our society and particularly the standing of aboriginal women. That is something we have the power to do, both individually and collectively and through our political parties.

I am glad this motion is being debated today. It is a step. As we have heard from the member for Churchill, we too believe there should be a national public inquiry, and we will not give up on that. I am sure people in the community will not let us forget that.

We have an immediate task, it appears, to set up this special committee. In the memory of the women in the downtown east side and to all of the activists, the family members and people who were there today at Main and Hastings, gathering at noon, and there will probably be more than 5,000 people, I want to say for myself and for my colleagues that we give that commitment. We will not let go of this issue. We will press for justice. We will work in a genuine meaningful way and we will make sure that the community voices are heard, because they know the truth. They know what needs to be done. In a way, we have to give our leadership, but we also have to understand their leadership and work in co-operation to make sure those changes do come about.