The federal government’s National Action Plan on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) shows Canada is making social progress, said Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, Caroline Wawzonek.
The 113 page document, published on June 3 and titled “2021 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ People National Action Plan” incorporates input from Indigenous groups including First Nations, Metis, Inuit, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the federal government and provinces and territories.
It lays out out an overarching vision of a “transformed Canada where Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people, wherever they are live free from violence, and are celebrated, honoured, respected, valued, treated equitably, safe and secure.”
It also includes guiding principles and sets of goals and short-term priorities.
“Five years ago you wouldn’t have had governments all starting to speak from a language of consciousness around trauma-informed approaches and holistic services and the need for decolonization,” said Wawzonek during an interview when she outlined the GNWT’s response to the federal plan.
“That vision is quite powerful. That has a significant impact on how the business of government works. These should be our national goals.”
Plan addresses root causes
Wawzonek acknowledges that the broad-strokes approach to the plan risks glossing over some of the unique challenges facing Indigenous women in the North.
The highways of the NWT, for example don’t have the same degree of traffic as Highway 16 in northern British Columbia, a stretch of road known as the Highway of Tears because of the large number of Indigenous women who have gone missing there.
“We have different problems here,” she said. “The national inquiry is (about) more than just Indigenous women who are being murdered or going missing. It’s also about the rates of violence against women. We have the second highest rate of violence against women in the country. Different parts of Canada see different problems. Some regions might see higher rates of infants being taken from parents, some might see low rates of Indigenous political participation. The goal of the inquiry looks at the root causes, (like) genocide and historical discrimination. All those root causes are there across Canada.”
A section on short-term priorities focuses on actions that can begin within one to three years and that correspond with various Calls to Justice from the MMIWG Final Report, released on June 3, 2019.
Don’t let NWT off the hook
Many priorities would be familiar to observers of NWT politics and society, such as efforts to close gaps in housing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, Indigenous-led healing programs and the inclusion of Gladue principles in the justice system.
But Wawzonek cautioned against assuming the NWT is necessarily ahead on fulfilling important priorities.
“Even items we are doing, we’re not moving fast enough on them. Housing is a huge issue for this assembly, (but) it’s because of the severity of the situation that we’re paying attention to it. While we have five shelters for women in the North they’re certainly not in every community. I do think there are interesting things we’re doing here. We’re ahead with our (Indigenous) language awareness but even though we have more languages the trends of declining fluency are concerning.”
One area where Wawzonek hopes Indigenous people in the territory aren’t missed is the scope for federal funding as it relates to geography.
The NWT differs from most southern jurisdictions in that there are only two reserves in the territory and most Indigenous people live in their own communities.
“There’s a sense (in the report) that off-reserve communities tend to be urban. I’m still a bit concerned that when funding is created to implement the priorities, it will be flexible enough so that organizations in the NWT can apply for it.”
Hold feds to account through implementation
Wawzonek noted that many of the action items sound unclear and even bureaucratic, with numerous committees and reviews mentioned throughout the plan.
“I’m hoping we can be a bit more specific. But this is a framework. The (federal government) said they would come out with an implementation plan (in July or August 2021) and immediate next steps. If those are successful, then concerns over vague plans will be alleviated.”
Government and Indigenous organizations will focus on those steps over the next year, the plan says.
NWT actions in plan
The three-page section on the NWT outlines progress the territory has made in pursuing its own action plan.
That includes the GNWT’s initial response to the MMIWG Final Report titled Doing Our Part, released in August of 2019; the Taking Action work plan tabled on Nov. 5, 2020; summary reports on responding to calls for justice; and the new Indigenous Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity Training for government employees and members of the public.
The newest action item is the establishment of the Gender Equity Division that will expand the work of the Women’s Advisory Unit and address gender equity, gender-based violence, family violence and women’s economic empowerment.
The division creates three new positions in the Department of Executive and Indigenous Affairs: a family violence coordinator, a gender and diversity analyst and a gender and diversity officer, according to the GNWT’s annual report on MMIWG, released on June 3.
Its chief aims are to ensure the GNWT’s commitment to gender equality is reflected in budgets and policies and to train staff in how to use Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) to assess how diverse groups of people might experience programs and initiatives.
The budget for the Gender Equity Division isn’t yet known.
The family violence co-ordinator position has already started, Wawzonek said, with the other roles waiting to be filled.
Another response action from the GNWT is the introduction of family violence leave into the Employment Standards Act, providing five paid and five unpaid days that can be taken by eligible employees to seek support or safety when dealing with a situation of family violence.
The territorial government also established an interdepartmental MMIWG Working Group to coordinate the GNWT’s response to the Calls for Justice.
The GNWT’s own draft action plan is scheduled to be released in the fall, a time that Wawzonek admitted in March was later than planned. She said the government wanted to do further consultation with Indigenous communities on its solutions for implementing calls for justice.
One of the key, general takeaways from the plan is the importance of giving community organizations greater autonomy while ensuring that governments are accountable for achieving the vision of the action plan.
”I think there’s a tension here. We still need to ensure that we’re giving that opportunity to people on the front lines in the communities to do the work they know they can do best.”