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Indigenous women must lead fight against violence, Ontario report says

TORONTO — Indigenous women must be squarely at the forefront of efforts to combat the national tragedy of violence against them, a new Ontario government report asserts.

TORONTO — Indigenous women must be squarely at the forefront of efforts to combat the national tragedy of violence against them, a new Ontario government report asserts.

The province's response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls offers a road map for tackling an issue that has inflicted horrors on countless lives for generations.

The "Pathways to Safety" report outlines the province's framework for action aimed at remedying the root causes of violence against Indigenous women and children. Among its principles is the need to tackle anti-Indigenous racism.

In a message accompanying the report, Jill Dunlop, associate minister of children and women's issues, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said the tragedies of the past cannot be undone but things can and must change.

"We are committing to providing supports to ensure future generations of Indigenous women, children and 2SLGBTQQIA+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) people can live safely and heal from trauma," the ministers said.

"As the strength, heart and soul of their communities, they deserve nothing less than to live free from violence and fear of harm."

The report lays out six "pathways," including to safety and justice, while ensuring Indigenous women maintain a leadership role in identifying solutions. The document was built on advice from the Indigenous Women's Advisory Council set up last year. 

Cora McGuire-Cyrette, co-chairwoman of the council, said in an interview Friday that the new framework was a good starting point for tackling an enormous problem on the ground.

"This is where the heavy lifting really does begin because we need everyone to work toward this," McGuire-Cyrette said from Thunder Bay, Ont. "This is not just an Indigenous issue, this is an everybody issue."

What's most heartening, she said, is how Indigenous women — previously erased from conversations about discrimination and violence against them — were now being heard. Their singular expertise, she said, was now recognized.

"I had never thought 15 years ago that people would be openly talking about violence against Indigenous women, because it was such an unpopular topic," McGuire-Cyrette said. "This is part of breaking that silence."

The national inquiry, which issued its 1,200-page report two years ago, found Indigenous women, girls and gender non-conforming people were victims of intergenerational genocide. Deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses had resulted in "staggering" rates of violence, it said. 

The inquiry made 231 "calls to justice," almost all of which had implications for Ontario.

"Ontario's strategy focuses on transformation, resourcing and structural change with an explicit violence-prevention lens," the province's report states. 

Outlined steps include increasing access to safe transportation options for Indigenous communities, and providing social and employment-related supports for urban Indigenous women. Other measures include making poverty reduction a priority and supporting access to affordable and safe housing.

The government also said it recognized Indigenous distrust of the justice system, saying it would focus now on structural change that takes in policing and child welfare.

"We are working to establish locally led Women's Circles and Family and Survivor's Circles to support the roll-out of actions within communities and identify community needs on an ongoing basis," the report concludes.

McGuire-Cyrette said political and community will are key to making the required changes and Indigenous women themselves are at the forefront.

"Regardless of all the violence that we face every single day of our lives, from the day we were born, we're still here leading in a healthy good strong way," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2021.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press