Monday, December 21, 2015

Reflections on Aboriginal Issues XII: In defense of a royal commission

          Here’s a post by a Canadian RCMP officer explaining his point of view on a proposed Royal Commission on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

          Broadly, his point is that the crime seen among Aboriginals both on and off reserve are directly related to poverty. 

          His points are reasonable, and his perspective isn’t one of dismissiveness so much as frustration, not with Aboriginal people themselves as with a society which collectively doesn’t recognize the obvious: until we deal with poverty, we’re going to continue seeing disproportionate crime rates among Aboriginals.  One of the more gruesome ways that manifests itself is through the rape and murder of Aboriginal women.  Deal with poverty, and you’ll also deal with crime.  But that post is also reflective of a particular point of view.

          The benefit of “practicing sociology” is that it gives you a wider view.  Yes, this is largely about poverty, but if we ignore the fact that one segment of the population is disproportionately affected by this, we’re missing a major part of the story.  And if we ignore the fact that one segment of that segment is even more disproportionately affected, it compounds the problem.

          The Harper government’s approach was to argue that this was about crime.  Which is partly true, but doesn’t respond to the issue in the long run.

          It seems likely that Aboriginal women are not treated equally by the criminal justice system.  When an Aboriginal sex-trade worker with a bad history goes missing, it attracts less attention than when a middle-class white woman does.  There are reasons for that, and some of those reasons are justifiable, but on the whole, the situation is not improved by simply pretending the crimes are treated equally. 

          An RCMP officer, burned out from seeing constant grinding poverty on reserves or in inner cities, becomes jaded when confronted with the case of a missing Aboriginal woman.  “Of course that happened”, he thinks, “it’s tragic, but that was the inevitable result of that situation”.  His thought process isn’t ‘right’, but it also can’t just be dismissed purely as racism.  It’s partly a response to the reality he has seen.  As I’ve noted before, systemic discrimination doesn’t happen because one person is shitty, it happens because a lot of people didn’t go out of their way to not be shitty.

          That’s why we need a royal commission. But that’s not the only reason. 

          Critics of the idea say that a royal commission will amount to a lot of talking but few results.  Which is certainly possible, but shouldn’t be taken as an inevitability.  Let’s say a quarter, or half of the recommendations get adopted.  That’s still progress.

          Royal commissions are also important because they tell us where we are, and they tell future generations where we were.  Choosing particular issues for attention create a sign-post, indicating for now and for the future what issues are of concern to Canadians at particular times.  It’s important for our identity and our growth to periodically take stock of these issues.

          Royal commissions are also a veritable treasure trove of academic work on select issues.  The most learned minds in the country are generally called upon to contribute, and I can tell you that I have frequently used work from royal commissions in my own research.  “Oh boy, it benefits some guy writing a dissertation 20 years later.”  But again, it goes back to the issue of drawing attention and creating a record.


          Yes, this is probably more about poverty and crime than anything else.  But we’ve been treating it that way for decades, with little to show for it.  Maybe it’s time for a different approach.   

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