Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women issues final report with sweeping calls for change | CBC News

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After more than three years, dozens of community meetings and testimony from well over 2,000 Canadians, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry will deliver its final report to the federal government at a ceremony in Gatineau, Que. today.

The report, which CBC News obtained before its official release, includes many recommendations to government, the police and the larger Canadian public to help address endemic levels of violence directed at Indigenous women and girls and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) people.

CBCNews.ca will carry the closing ceremonies live starting at 9 a.m. ET.

Beyond defining the level of violence against these women as a “Canadian genocide,” recommending official language status for Indigenous languages and a guaranteed income for all Indigenous peoples, the commissioners are also recommending sweeping reforms to the justice system and policing in this country, including stiffer penalties for men who carry out spousal or partner abuse.

“We call upon the federal government to include cases where there is a pattern of intimate partner violence and abuse as murder in the first degree under section 222 of the Criminal Code,” the report reads.

First-degree murder is the most serious of all the homicide offences. If convicted, offenders usually spend longer in prison, with fewer chances for parole.

The inquiry said that, too often, murder investigations are “marked by indifference” and negative stereotypes that result in Indigenous deaths and disappearances being investigated and treated differently from other cases — differences that result in fewer solved cases.

And when there is a reasonable chance of a conviction, the inquiry said, Crown attorneys too often are willing to accept plea bargains or reduced charges in exchange for guilty pleas in cases of murdered Indigenous women.

To that end, the inquiry calls for more “Indigenous-specific options” for sentencing, without specifying what exactly the government should change on that front. It called for a strengthening of Gladue principles in Canadian courts, a legal term that stipulates an offender’s Indigenous ancestry should be considered in the sentencing process.

“While the prosecutorial decisions … may well be justified, the frequency with which this occurs understandably raises questions in the Indigenous community, particularly when the sentences on conviction escape the mandatory parole ineligibility of 10 or 25 years on the more serious charges.”

To ensure more equitable outcomes, the inquiry said, more Indigenous judges, justices of the peace and police should be hired to ensure Indigenous voices are in positions of power in the criminal justice system. Failing that, the report said a separate court system for the Indigenous population should be established to lead to more “meaningful and culturally appropriate justice practices …”

Far too many murder cases aren’t solved and don’t make it to trial at all, the inquiry said — and that means the federal funds ought to be bolstering the ranks of Indigenous police forces across the country to ensure better investigations.

“We call upon all governments to immediately and dramatically transform Indigenous policing from its current state as a mere delegation to an exercise in self-governance and self-determination over policing,” the report reads.

“The federal government’s First Nations Policing Program must be replaced with a new legislative and funding framework, consistent with international and domestic policing best practices and standards, that must be developed by the federal, provincial, and territorial governments in partnership with Indigenous Peoples.”

The report also calls on provincial and territorial governments to improve the restraining order system by making them “available, accessible, promptly issued and effectively serviced and resourced” — to help Indigenous women stay out of harm’s way when faced with a violent partner.

Beyond facilitating access to restraining orders (or “protection orders,” as they’re often known in Canada) the inquiry is calling on the government to offer guaranteed access to financial support, legislated paid leave and disability benefits and “appropriate trauma care” to Indigenous victims of crime or other traumatic events.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett would not comment on the report’s recommendations ahead of their official release.

“Out of respect for the independent National Inquiry and the families, we won’t comment on the details of the final report before then. After decades of demanding a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, families are finally getting the answers they have been looking for,” a spokesperson for the minister said.

In an interview with CBC News before the news organization obtained a leaked copy of the report, Bennett said the government accepts that the status quo isn’t keeping Indigenous women and girls safe.

She said, however, that the government already has moved ahead with meaningful reforms, including its overhaul of the child and family services regime and a de-colonizing push for greater self-government for Indigenous peoples, part of a larger fight for equality.

“The inquiry is really only a beginning. We’ve got to do the work, and we’ve got to change attitudes, and we’ve got to increase the safety of Indigenous women and girls wherever they are in this country,” Bennett said.

“Indigenous women and girls need to be safe wherever they live in this country — whether it’s in their home communities or a downtown urban centre. That’s the only way we’ll stop this national tragedy.”

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Moving ‘Welfare Wednesday’ to a different day has unintended consequences, researcher says | CBC News

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Karen Ward, 46, has lived in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for 12 years. She began using cocaine about three years before that, and continues to smoke “rock.”

Ward doesn’t get welfare, but she is on disability assistance while working part-time for the City of Vancouver. She says when cheque issue day — or “welfare Wednesday” — rolls around, the entire neighbourhood goes crazy; the chaos even starts a day early in anticipation.

“People are getting loans. People are getting fronts — it’s mayhem,” said Ward. “Everyone finally has a little bit of money to spend. These people are so poor for so long … They spend it right away; they spend it recklessly.”

Karen Ward describes cheque issue day, or ‘welfare Wednesday,’ as chaos in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, when everyone has a little bit of money and there are debts to settle. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Cheque issue day has long been tied to spikes in overdoses, taxing first responders and emergency rooms. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, fatal overdoses increase by 35 to 40 per cent in the five days after income assistance payments. 

Officials have called for changes to reduce the harm, hoping to save some of the hundreds of lives lost in the province to overdoses each year.

But new research shows that the issue isn’t so simple. 

Lindsey Richardson is a researcher with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use and an associate professor at the University of British Columbia. Since 2015, she’s been carrying out a study on the effects of changing assistance cheque schedules for people who use drugs.

Richardson recruited 194 volunteers — mostly based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — who participated for six months each.

They were randomly split into three groups: a control group that kept the regular assistance schedule, a group that received assistance once a month, but on a staggered schedule, and a group that received assistance split into two separate cheques over the course of the month.

Lindsey Richardson is a researcher with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use and an associate professor in UBC’s sociology department. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Richardson found that those who were taken off the regular government schedule were significantly less likely to increase their drug use on the government payment days, and were about half as likely to increase their drug use on their own payment days.

People with altered payment schedules showed much larger decreases in overall quantity and frequency of drug use than the volunteers whose assistance cheques remained on the regular schedule.

Negative effects

But, according to Richardson, there was a downside for people who were out of sync with welfare Wednesday in their neighbourhood. Some people experienced more drug-related harm, including violence, negative interactions with police, overdose frequency, and interruption of health treatments.

“What might be happening is when you pull people out of [the] predictable regular scheduled system you’re disrupting social relationships — you’re disrupting economic relationships,” said Richardson.

“We know that cheque day is one of the days in which people often settle their drug debts,” she said. “What could potentially happen if a drug dealer goes to a person who holds a debt with them and says, ‘It’s time to pay up,’ and that person says, ‘Oh but I’m not being paid until two weeks from now,’ that could potentially put that person at risk.”

The ‘Zero Block’ of East Hastings Street in Vancouver, between Columbia and Carrall streets, teems with people selling their wares, meeting with friends, or just passing through. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Richardson also said that the randomized selection for how and when people received assistance may have been difficult on some participants.

“Changes to the income assistance system really could produce changes to drug use patterns,” she said. “However, there is a strong potential for unintended consequences.”

Richardson said the study revealed that a “one size fits all” cheque payment schedule is likely to increase harms, while flexibility could help reduce negative impact.

According to Ward, reducing poverty would go a long way toward reducing many of the harms drug users in the Downtown Eastside experience.

She said disrupting entrenched routines like when people get their cheques could be risky, but if people have choice about the issue, it could improve the situation.

Do you have more to add to this story? Email [email protected]

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

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