Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told a global audience in New York that racism and sexism in Canada have tainted the way some investigators handle homicide and missing-person cases involving indigenous women.

On stage Thursday at the Women in the World Summit, Dr. Bennett said there is at times an “uneven application of justice” in cases involving indigenous women. “You end up with people who have been told that it was an overdose, or a suicide or an accident,” she said. “The file is empty because it was just an assumption that this death or missing person was inevitable. … Nobody is making this up. This is real for the families.”

When confronted by the moderator with the title of the panel, Canada’s Shame: The Murdered and Missing, Dr. Bennett said bluntly: “It’s the truth. Without the truth we will never fix this problem. … We’ve got to deal with the issues around poverty, violence and education, and the racism and sexism that mean that when somebody who happens to be indigenous goes missing or is murdered, [the case] doesn’t receive the same treatment as a non-indigenous person.”

The minister and her three co-panelists – relatives of two victims, and a former Vancouver detective who worked on the investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton – laid bare the historic and modern social ills that render indigenous women vulnerable to crime in a country that is often on the international stage espousing human rights elsewhere.

In a phone interview with The Globe and Mail shortly before the panel began, the minister said she has little confidence in the RCMP’s widely cited finding, released in 2014, that 1,181 indigenous women were killed or went missing across the country between 1980 and 2012.

“We don’t believe that the data is of a high quality,” she said. “They have what they have, but I don’t believe it properly describes the issue.”

Dr. Bennett has said she believes the tally is “way, way bigger,” saying the number does not capture deaths investigators unduly deemed not to be homicides, missing persons that were never reported, or cases in which families hid the fact that their loved one was indigenous for fear police would take the case less seriously.

Dr. Bennett reiterated the government’s intent to launch a national inquiry into the violence by the summer, telling The Globe she expects it to be under way before the House of Commons breaks for the summer toward the end of June.

Long before then, she said, the cabinet will approve the terms of reference and the choice of commissioner or commissioners. Asked whether the government has a shortlist, Dr. Bennett said a “very, very long list” emerged from pre-inquiry consultations that wrapped in mid-February. “We have heard, from coast to coast to coast, that the leadership should be, or should include, indigenous women,” she said.

Dr. Bennett, along with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu, travelled the country and held 18 meetings with more than 2,000 participants, including victims’ relatives and indigenous leaders. The government also received more than 4,100 online survey submissions. A team of public servants is reviewing the feedback, and a summary will be posted to the Indigenous Affairs website in the coming weeks, a department spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

The minister participated in the seventh annual Women in the World summit alongside women such as former first lady Laura Bush, actress Mindy Kaling and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Other topics included jihad in Africa and caste violence in India. The panel, moderated by journalist John Hockenberry, was the first time the issue of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women has been featured at the event, which was held at Lincoln Center.

Dr. Bennett discussed the crisis with former Vancouver detective Lori Shenher and victims’ relatives Michele Pineault and Melina Laboucan-Massimo. The panelists educated the international audience on the legacy of the residential-school system, and Ms. Pineault and Ms. Laboucan-Massimo shared deeply personal experiences of loss and frustration.

Ms. Pineault described the anguish she felt at learning Mr. Pickton would not be charged in the death of her daughter, Stephanie Lane, whose DNA was found on his pig farm in 2003. Ms. Laboucan-Massimo said police erroneously presumed her sister, Bella Laboucan-McLean, a college graduate, was using drugs before plunging 31 storeys from a Toronto balcony in July, 2013. The death was deemed suspicious and remains unsolved. And Ms. Shenher told the audience that when Mr. Pickton’s victims were going missing, the “overarching attitude [among police] was that these women don’t matter.”

Dr. Bennett said these accounts are examples of unfairness in a country whose core value is fairness. “No one can hear these stories without thinking there’s an uneven application of justice,” she said, “and that it has to be fixed.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Apr. 07, 2016 9:18PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Apr. 08, 2016 7:39AM EDT