The federal government has delayed a long-promised action plan to address the country’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that excuse is not good enough for Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler, who is calling on the Northwest Territories to put together an action plan of its own.
After giving an impassioned statement on the crisis on June 3 at the NWT Legislature, she went on to ask the house what plans they had put together to stop the ongoing violence that has claimed the lives of thousands of people. However, she says, she was told the territory was waiting on Ottawa.
Pointing to a statement made in the House of Commons by Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett who said “all of the provinces and territories are working on their plan, that will be lifted up into a national action plan,” Semmler asked whether the territory was making progress on its own strategy.
“I asked today in the house about an NWT MMIWG action plan. I was told they are waiting for the federal national plan,” she wrote in a Facebook post that afternoon. “In this video Minister Bennett says that all the provinces and territories are working on their plans to lift up into a national plan.
“So I guess there is no work done on a plan because they are all waiting for each other. Who’s telling the truth?”
Semmler says she wants to see real changes, starting with current calls for justice that the NWT government has immediate jurisdiction over. She said once the territory had a proper plan in place they would be able to go to Ottawa for funding on specific issues.
She said she wanted to see stable funding for shelters and better supports for victims of both homelessness and violence. Funding should also allow for the establishment of localized addictions services and follow-up care with Indigenous partners.
“We need to work towards essential services that can remain in the communities longer to help with building trust,” she said. “And have an Indigenous liaison person to ensure that there is a good connection between the communities and organizations like RCMP, health care and child and family services.
Any policy changes, Semmler added, should be cross-referenced with the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a guide for both decisions and integrated into the education curriculum.
“Teachers need to really understand where their students are coming from, especially the new teachers coming right out of university,” she said. “They need to be prepared and educated on MMIWG and the lasting effects that are still in our communities and find ways to support all our students and meet them where they’re at.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada reports one in five Indigenous women have experienced violence during the COVID-19 crisis.
NWT tabled a response within months of report, says minister
Also on June 3, Minister Responsible for the Status of Women Diane Thom issued a statement on behalf of the NWT government.
“We must remember that this journey has not ended,” she said. “The final report includes 231 calls for justice, covering a wide range of themes, including culture, health and wellness, and human security. Within months of the final report’s release, the government of the Northwest Territories prepared and tabled a response.
“Our response highlights the work we are already doing as well as the work we can build upon. And we are committed to working with Canada and other stakeholders to develop a national action plan to address the systematic causes of violence, inequality and racism so that all Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQ+ people can feel safe, supported and empowered.
“As Minister Responsible for the Status of Women I call upon all residents of the Northwest Territories to take the time to remember those we have lost: our sisters, our nieces, our mothers and our daughters, our friends and neighbours. More importantly, I urge everybody to consider what they can do to end the violence that continues to have such a destructive impact on the lives of so many.”
In August 2019, the previous territorial government announced it was not yet committing to the 231 recommendations because of the upcoming territorial election, noting it would need additional resources to properly implement them.
The response noted the territory has nine official languages and had made progress integrating some of them into school curriculums. It also noted the government has made progress on improving health care standards in respect to traditional beliefs and culture.
“The [government of the Northwest Territories] recognizes that this work cannot be done by governments alone,” reads the response. “We need to work with the federal government, Indigenous governments, business sectors and non-government organizations.”
At the time, then-Minister Responsible for the Status of Women Caroline Cochrane said the next government had to make implementing the recommendations a priority.
Women are the backbone of the Dene Nation: Yakeleya
Noting it was not just the one-year anniversary of the final report on MMIWG, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya also pointed out June 2 was the five-year anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
He said the ongoing ramifications of colonization have had a particularly traumatic effect on women.
“Women are the backbone of the Dene Nation. Of all the nations,” he said. “And women have been marginalized and disempowered through the pieces of legislation in the Indian Act and the whole attitude of the colonization way of life.”
While calling out the federal government for not having the action plan ready, Yakeleya also said the Dene were still waiting for a commitment on a child and youth advocate from the GNWT.
“Where’s the government? Where are they?” he asked. “The Dene are ready, but we need a government to build a relationship with Indigenous people. They’re not showing up.”